Merce Cunningham: Moved by the Music of Our Time

Dance on Film and Motion Capture Computer Technology

FRANK J. OTERI: The third discovery you came to was working with seeing dance on film, capturing dance on video and seeing details that would otherwise be invisible to an audience. What kinds of aesthetic decisions did you end up making based on this?

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Here, it must have been, at that time it was the ’70s, and Charles Atlas was our stage manager and he also was a film and video person. And he kept talking about it and I had never…and he brought his camera in and he said you have to go through it, so he put it up and I, well, I had often talked with dancers who had worked in television, and most of them, at the time, said they didn’t like it. And when I asked why, they said, “Well, it doesn’t work” or “It doesn’t look like I thought it would,” or something like that. And I looked through this, like she is [indicates camera person] and I thought, “Oh! It’s totally different from the stage. You can do something different. You don’t have to do that.” That was the first thing that struck me right away. Instead of thinking it isn’t what I know. I began with something I didn’t know about so I could approach it from somewhere else. At least that’s how it started. And then working with Charles Atlas, we made several dance films here. Dances made specifically for the camera. And I, people often say, some dancers, the camera doesn’t interest them. They’re all saying that it doesn’t look like dance and it looks better on the stage and I always say, well, there’s Fred Astaire. We all saw him in the movies and you didn’t see him on the stage, or I didn’t see him on the stage. And yet the dancing that comes through is so remarkable. So the whole thing about it not working on film was blown to pieces, I’m sure for everybody. [laughs] And so working with Charlie and with that thinking, I found it absolutely fascinating and terribly difficult. Hard if you want to maneuver and see it from different angles. You see, if you see something on stage, you’re sitting here and it’s going on there and you have the frame in which the movement can go, say, relating to the frame. But with the camera, you see it here because maybe there was a camera here so the frame was different and the look of the dancers different. That I liked. I thought it was interesting. Something that might make me uncomfortable which is simply another way. And several things with it, for example, repetition content. I quickly realized that if you start to repeat a lot, people are going to turn the channel because they know you’re repeating. On the stage repetition can have a kind of power, but in camera you get this idea that you want to do something else. But if you saw it from different angles, that was one way. Then the other thing I noticed was how small steps, I’m talking dance steps, a slight change would make a difference that it wouldn’t on the stage. If the dancers are facing this way on the stage and do that [indicates small movement], you would barely see it at all, but you’d see it on the camera. The first time I noticed that was when we were working on a sequence and I kept seeing them, when the sequence worked, then I saw them off the camera, and then on the camera something was wrong. I couldn’t figure it out and finally I realized that it was one of the five women, one of the women when she turned, instead of ending this way, ended that way. That was the difference, but once I spotted it I thought, well, you have to learn how to do the small things quick. So I began to add things in the technique classes, which involved rapid movement, not necessarily large because then soon you’d be off camera, but how to maneuver here and make the movements clear and the steps sharp that you can actually see with the camera. It brought a lot of things. How to work things in a small space, for example. That and the repetition and also I like very much the shifting angles where you can see something from a different point of view, because I think it opens your eyes about that stuff.

FRANK J. OTERI: And the most recent discovery that you’ve been working with, which [your Director of Communications] Trevor Carlson was telling me about, is motion capture computer technology.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Yes, that’s used in Biped with the scrim in front of the old David Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar projections. The principle and simple difference between my awareness of working—of both these just to explain—is that in Life Forms I put the movement in on a figure through the computer and move along with the dancer, so there it is. With motion capture, the way we have worked so far, is that they would shoot a dancer doing a short sequence of movement from Biped, but the shooting is different. The dancer’s in a space which is, in a sense, circular and the cameras can move all the way around, so when you make it, you don’t have to worry about which way it’s going, because they can change it after they get it in the camera. Now for the dancer that is participating, he or she is wearing black and a black hood on which these knobs, which are the size of small ping pong balls, are placed around the joints. So then it’s shot with all these cameras and what you see of these things, sort of movements through the joints, they can take them, having all this material, they can change it in an absolute multiplicity of ways. The movements were basically short simply because it was all so new to me, and to them as to how to get this take from me to them! I didn’t do anything on the computer—it was much more complicated than my work with Life Forms—but they would come every other week and show me and then they’d make suggestions and it’s in its way a mélange of how you can make not just clear images that are clearly the figure moving but to change those images to become more fluid hand-drawn figures that you can draw on the computer itself and change. This is all what one has the opportunity to work with now, that’s what interests me. Not simply thinking in terms of old-fashioned scenes, but with what kind of things can be done now. And I’ve been very fortunate with the visual artists with whom I’ve work, I think in general. They don’t all use computers… Rainforest, for example, with Andy‘s pillows, which are like moving scenery. They’re not fixed in anyway and sometimes they bound off the stage and move with it…I saw them in a small exhibit, the first one he’d ever had, and he was sitting in the corner, and I was walking with Jasper Johns and I could see him and I said, “Oh, Jasper, those are Andy’s pillows!” And he said, “Yes.” I said, “They’d be marvelous on the stage. Do you think we can ask him?” And Jasper said, “Well, should we ask him?” And Andy said, “Oh, yes.” So, we had a décor!