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A dancemaker emboldened by curiosity

The spirit of inquiry motivates the lifework of Merce Cunningham, whose longevity and vitality still inspires

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Even if you didn't know that Merce Cunningham is one of a handful of luminaries who rewrote the rules of dance in the 20th century, you would still be drawn to the excitement in his voice, to the sheer passion of his curiosity, even after decades devoted to his art.

"It's about seeing movement in a new way," he told a starstruck crowd gathered in the Cantor Art Center on the Stanford University campus here. "It's about seeing unexpected connections between music and dance," he adds. And then he smiles gently, with a look that has held more than a hint of mischief from the earliest days of his career.

The legendary modern dancer was on campus for the final week of a month-long, campus-wide exploration of his life work, dubbed simply: "Encounter: Merce." During 30 days of interdisciplinary exploration, everyone from computer-science and biology undergraduates to medical-center personnel and music professors has participated in lectures, research projects, and "happenings" - the mixing of many art forms into a single event.

As Cunningham shared anecdotes about the founding of his company in 1953, it became clear that, while his passions have changed little, the world around him has. Many of his once radical ideas, including the role of chance in the artistic process that he and his fellow artists espoused many decades ago, have become well accepted in the art world.

"With Merce, you don't talk about where he fits into the landscape of dance. He is the landscape," says Diane Frank, a lecturer in dance at Stanford who teaches Cunningham's technique, adding, "he defined the terms of engagement for modern dance in the 20th century."

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