WHEN WE DESCRIBE someone as a force of nature, the comparison is usually to a cataclysmic event, like a volcano or a hurricane. Choreographer Merce Cunningham could be described as such a force, but in his case the resemblance is to something more constant, like gravity or erosion. He's been working at the edge of the art form for so long that, for many of us involved in dance, he defines experimentation.
Merce Cunningham Dance Company
UW campus, Meany Theater April 26-28
Cunningham's first work in 1944 began a long process of reduction, removing everything except what he feels are the essential components of dance: movement in time and space. Over the years, he has discarded most of the conventions of dance making—there's no particular relationship between music and movement, no orderly development of theme and variation, no specific character or emotional state, no hierarchical organization of the stage space with center stage the prize and far left and right the sticks. Anyone can do anything anywhere, or everyone can do nothing at all. From his longtime colleague John Cage, Cunningham learned to use chance procedures, literally tossing coins or throwing dice to generate and structure movement sequences. He doesn't collaborate with composers and scenic artists so much as coexist with them, usually waiting until opening night to combine these elements. In some ways, it seems he's striving to take himself out of his art altogether, except that he's the one who makes all these decisions.
The products of this rarefying process, the dances can be wildly varied, with moments of intense lyricism back-to-back with Three Stooges-like comedy or twitchy agitation. They're natural in the way that cinema verit頩s natural: an example of the random nature of life. The technique he's developed requires dancers who are fleet, strong without being massive, and imbued with a kind of movement intelligence that lets them function within the group while remaining independent of it. Originally, he worked out movement on his own body, but recently he's turned to computer technology to generate material, using Life Forms, an animation program first developed at British Columbia's Simon Fraser University. To some extent, the computer provides a perfect rehearsal assistant, tireless and without ingrained movement habits that might affect its decisions.
NEXT WEEK'S PROGRAM spans 30 years. RainForest premiered in 1968 and is full of what might be called animal behavior: stalking, nuzzling, twitching, and wagging. Dancers seem to meet and part at random, engaging in feral play or just passing by. The decor, by Andy Warhol, might be the most perfect for a Cunningham work. Helium-filled mylar pillows float around the stage, moving with the air currents or the occasional shove from a dancer. The sleek pillows are a vivid contrast to the costumes—leotards and tights with jagged holes torn in them.
Biped, from 1999, reflects a new use of computer technology for Cunningham. Created using motion capture animation, it translates the human form into a digital one, then back again. By filming a group of dancers wearing location dots on their major joints, then digitizing and animating the movement of the locators, the program crystallizes the direction and shape of the movement without reference to the dancers' appearances. Cunningham then makes dance phrases using that raw material, putting it back into the bodies we view on stage. Designers Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser use images from the motion capture material as well, which are projected onto a sheer front curtain, so we see the dancers behind that curtain like we see the bulk of Cunningham's work: through a matrix of essential movement.