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Originally published Thursday, July 30, 2009 at 3:15 PM

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Celebrated choreographer Merce Cunningham took his first steps in Centralia and Seattle

Merce Cunningham, hailed during his life as the world's greatest choreographer, was born in Centralia and was introduced to modern dance at the Cornish School in Seattle.

CENTRALIA-BORN Merce Cunningham lived and danced amid superlatives. His extraordinary skills and rich legacy spark a measure of regional pride, because he is recalled as having taken his birthplace with him.

Cunningham, who died Sunday at age 90, was a New Yorker in later life, but his choreography and original works were infused with textures, movements and references from his home state.

His foundational role in modern dance was memorialized on the front page of The New York Times and carried through to a full page inside. The leaps and bounds of Cunningham's career had him eulogized by writer Alastair Macaulay as a revolutionary American choreographer and someone celebrated through a long, productive life as the world's greatest living choreographer.

Cunningham, who took his first dance lessons in Centralia as a child, was introduced to modern dance at the Cornish School in Seattle. He was so thoroughly schooled in dance, and artistically gifted, he could confidently amend, invent and create new work grounded in the fundamentals.

He understood and respected his craft enough to take it in new directions. Cunningham is remembered for the physicality of his dance and the willingness to try new things. Even to the point of allowing chance — the flip of coin — to decide which move would come next.

Talent, vision and opportunity are not bound by the place that life sets us. That is what the next generation of dancers, writers, inventors and creators need to recall.

A gifted young man from Centralia took center stage and the rest of the world had to try and keep pace.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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