Merce Cunningham: Moved by the Music of Our Time

Life Forms

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: One of the things that I now have, and a number of other dancers too, is a computer [program] called Life Forms, devised at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia. It’s a joint enterprise between the dance department and the science department. They’re still working together as far as I can tell. I was introduced to it, oh, way over 10 years ago. They asked me if I wanted to see something about it and it looked so interesting, I said yes. So they sent me a video of the way it works and I was struck immediately because of the technology, for one thing. It was in a computer which was visual and there was dancing which was visual, so I though, “Well, they go together!” [laughs] So I said I was interested and they arranged for me to have a computer here, and then someone from the university came to help me. And she would sit with me and say, well, now you do this and this and then I would do it and it would all fall apart and she’d say, “No, that’s alright, we’ll get it all back again!” [laughs] And gradually simply through pursuing, because I knew absolutely nothing about computers in any way, I’ve learned to use it and I use it now in all the works, not entirely, but in a great portion to amass great amounts of material, visual material. Because what you see is this single figure, which you can manipulate in any way and you can put it into a shape and then you move on the computer what’s called a timeline, where it’s now a different time so you can put another movement. So you can put another one—I’m doing this very simply, but that’s basically what it is. Then the computer will go from this movement very directly to this movement. In the most direct possible way you see the body do this and then become this. Well, I thought looking at this, well, what if you put something else in the window! [laughs] So I would try that out and of course I crashed everything! But I didn’t mind because I figured, I didn’t know anything so it wasn’t a mistake, and I’d just go on. And with practice and use and periodic help, I’ve worked on it a great deal. It has limits naturally because like anything technological, in the beginning there are awkwardnesses. We don’t see them that way perhaps, how long something takes for example, but we see how quickly it removes several of the steps if you do the same thing with Life Forms. Something that used to take, say, five operations now can be done with one so that there is a certain speed. You can only put in one figure at a time, but you can amass a great amount of material that way and then put the material on different smaller figures, on what they call the stage space. It’s like a checkerboard. And there you can bring up smaller figures each of—they can all do the same thing or you can bring up different things. So there’s this complexity possible which you can examine. Now, I can work with those figures for hours. They don’t get tired! But it’s very difficult with dancers because it’s hard and they have to stop every once in a while. And it also gives me a way of working when the company is on a break.

FRANK J. OTERI: To take this back to a composer’s perspective, I started using a very sophisticated music notation program last year and I found that I began to understand the orchestra better and how instruments interact together better than I ever could working this out on paper. I can actually hear combinations and make changes.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: That’s right.

FRANK J. OTERI: A lot of composers today struggle when they first start working with an orchestra because orchestras don’t commission a lot of new works. It’s not like when Mahler had the Vienna Philharmonic at his disposal. He knew what those sounds were by living with them. We always think of composing as a very solitary act: you should be able to have those sounds in your head. You should be able to write a symphony out on paper and know what it sounds like full form. But for choreography, it’s never been that way. It’s always been about working with other people.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Well, seeing it.

FRANK J. OTERI: And seeing it and interacting.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Visual, visual.

FRANK J. OTERI: But it’s never been about writing something out and then saying, “Ok, here’s my choreography. Go do it.”

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: I don’t… This, of course, can also be used just to record and very accurately. You have to do it. You have to put it in clearly, but once it’s there it’s very useful that way. I know that many people now in various schools use it and I think from that point of view it’s good. You can put a ballet combination in very clearly and the student can see this and then the teacher can slow it down so you can see exactly how it operates. Even if when the dancer does it he or she cannot do it that slow, they can see what makes it up, the kind of digestive parts! [laughs] And I have books with some of our exercises in them. But principally, I like it because, first of all, I can make things up and second of all I can see.

FRANK J. OTERI: But of course, there’s probably not been a dance that you have completed using this program without testing it on people and then changing it.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Well, O.K., you’re quite right. You have all of this in the computer and I take it to the studio and to the dancers. If it’s something unfamiliar, I usually put it in the classroom exercise just simply to see if we can do it. But if I see one student get it then I know—once somebody has done it, then other people would say, well, we can do it too. So, you can see it that way and then go back and if it needs to be changed for physical reasons, we can put that in the computer so what we have now is what the dancer can do.

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