Merce Cunningham: computerized choreographer

I have been choreographing dances on the computer -- both a Silicon Graphics Indy and a PowerBook 540c -- for about eight years now. The software I use is called Life Forms and was developed at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver. The program has three windows: a "space grid," which functions like a stage; a "timeline," which lets you control how long a movement takes and when it occurs; and a "sequence editor," which is a four-inch-high three-dimensional figure that resembles a skeleton, only the bones go horizontally instead of vertically.

The principal window for me is the sequence editor, or "Seq Ed," as I call him. With the mouse I manipulate his joints to create different movements, and then I store those movements in the memory. The first thing I had to get used to was that to get the legs or the body moving, I had to get the arms out of the way. So now I lift the arms, one to each side straight out from the shoulders, before I begin. I might put one movement on the legs, go back and put another on the body, and again with the arms and even the head. Of course Seq Ed can do things that the dancers never could -- he can wrap his head around several times, for example. But since people can't do that, I don't do that. I then show the dancers what I've come up with. They have to take this segregated situation and try to put it together and make it into something that seems natural. It takes a while.

The computer has added possibilities of complexity to my work -- it has allowed me to see things that would not have occurred to me otherwise. For example, the use of the arms in my recent dances is much more complex than before. Instead of their holding a single position while the legs do a phrase, they change a great deal. On the computer I saw that as a possibility: I'm looking, and I see I have the legs going but there are these arms stuck out to the side -- and why don't they do something? Even if I'd come to that realization without the computer, trying to break up the movement on the dancers would have worn them out.

Artists working with technology is nothing new. Acrylic paint came in, and painters used it immediately. Everybody thought the typewriter was so cold and rigid, but how could writers have gotten along without it? If something's useful, artists will try to find a way to work with it. More to the point is that many artists don't have access to the technology. I was lucky -- the Life Forms people came to me. Twenty years ago I saw a two-dimensional black-and-white experiment in which stick figures were moved around on a computer screen. I immediately thought, "That's the way dance notation should go, toward this visual apparatus." So when I got the computer, I just plunged in. Lord knows, the first year was just one mess after another, as I tried to figure out how to work with it.

People who have followed my work can see changes, many of which are produced by the computer. But that doesn't mean it looks mechanical. I take what I get off the computer and then work with the dancers. For me it's a tool of discovery.

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The Cunningham Dance Foundation's Web address is http://www.merce.org.