When Merce Cunningham Took On a New Collaborator: The Computer

“Computers are the future of dance,” Merce Cunningham announced to me at his company’s Christmas party in 1995. “People just don’t understand the future possibilities of the computer and dance.”

To Cunningham, the can-do seer of modern dance, the computer as an ancillary muse was as obvious as the glass of red wine he was sipping. I was the company’s publicist then, struggling to envision what he was saying. A computer instead of his gorgeous dancers?

Since the pandemic shut down the performing arts as we know them, the subject of the future of dance, always a question given its fragile economy, seems particularly urgent. With bodies of flesh, bone and muscle mostly unavailable to choreographers, they are using Zoom to stage rehearsals or work with dancers. A videoconferencing platform, Zoom wasn’t designed to suggest new movement ideas, and it limits the choreographer to working mostly with one dancer per frame at a time.

When Cunningham began working with the computer in 1989, at 70, he used it differently — as a creative collaborator, turning to a new, and at that time somewhat clumsy, program called LifeForms. With avatars as stand-ins for real life dancers, LifeForms not only allowed choreographers to create movement, but also to work simultaneously with multiple figures whose dancing could be tracked on the screen.

Cunningham learned how to manipulate the avatars, the stocky, rubbery little 3-D bodies whose layered limbs could be controlled in ways that went even beyond his imagination. He carefully moved the limbs of these avatars — he called them Michelin men — joint by joint, in multiple directions, and wondrous new possibilities appeared.

Discovering the computer as a tireless ally was a eureka moment. Probably, though not admittedly, Cunningham started working with it because his once enormously gifted body, which had been the source of his ideas, could no longer serve as a laboratory. At 70, he certainly couldn’t jump 50 consecutive times to realize physically what his still-agile mind imagined. Nor could he ask his dancers to do so. But he could order a tireless onscreen avatar to do it — and in myriad unpredicted ways — until he was satisfied.

Cunningham would show up at rehearsal with his legal pads full of the stick figures he had drawn of the Michelin men. He’d then proceed to transfer his discoveries onto his dancers, first working their legs, then their arms and then the torso and head.

Always wunderkinder of virtuosity, Cunningham’s dancers had to be as intellectually brainy as they were physically smart. Lacking the support of conventional music to nudge their kinetic memory of a phrase, they had to keep complicated, rapidly changing counts in their heads. Now, they also had to rethink the way they learned phrases of movement.

Despite his fascination with movement and technology, including cameras, Merce hated photo shoots. “They eat into my rehearsal time,” he’d complain. One winter afternoon in 1992, before a particularly fraught shoot, I watched his mood sour as the photographer, who had arrived late, spent untold amounts of time setting up fancy black draping.

When the photographer had finally packed up and the dancers left, Merce called me over. I thought, now I’m going to get fired. I steeled myself. Maybe I could go back to writing about dance, which is what I’d done before getting into the PR business.

I noticed Merce looking around cautiously as if making sure there were no eavesdroppers. “How’s Paul?” he asked in almost a whisper. “Fine,” I said, wondering why he was asking me about Paul Taylor, an arch competitor whom I also worked for at the time. “You know,” Merce said, “my dancers are just as virtuosic as the Taylor dancers.” “Of course, they are,” I responded.

“It’s just that the Taylor dancers jump up on the upbeat and come down on the downbeat, so they look like they’re jumping higher,” he said. “We don’t use that kind of music.” I wasn’t quite sure why he needed to tell me the obvious. And I was taken aback that Merce, master of the emotionally oblique, would spontaneously express such Papa Bear love for his dancers. Did he want me to point out their prowess to the press? I’m still not sure.

But I did know that, inspired by the avatar’s flexibility, he was making even greater demands on his heroic dancers and their coordination skills. A simple forward walk could be transformed into a thing of awkward beauty as one highly arched right foot peeled itself off the floor to cross the left ankle in a slow step forward on the ball of the foot, while the back arched back with one arm bent at the elbow and the head tilted sideways.

Such unexpected plays of opposites created dramatic tension, and with them, their own theater. And that’s just one moment of thousands in a single dance.

In the late 1970s, he began a long working relationship with the filmmaker Charles Atlas. Their “Channels/Inserts” (1981), with its use of multiple screens revealing the dancers working in different locations simultaneously, could be seen to presage Zoom’s collapse of distance and its accommodation of multiple locations on the same screen.

Since Cunningham first used it, LifeForms has gone through multiple iterations. The latest, DanceForms, inspired by him, replaced the Michelin men with figures of dancers with color-coded limbs and joints. Like the original, this more user-friendly version was developed in part by Thecla Schiphorst, at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, who served as Cunningham’s computer mentor and worked with him for almost two decades as more sophisticated software was developed.

Ms. Schiphorst noted that most dance artists use the computer to work out ideas they’ve already formulated, not to generate new ones. “It takes what is called ‘a beginners mind’ to be open to discovery,” she said.

Cunningham, with his irrepressible curiosity, could examine what appeared onscreen and let it reveal its potential wealth. While the avatars could offer revelations, it required his imagination to bring them to life.

“LifeForms is not revolutionizing dance but expanding it,” he said, “because you see movement in a way that was always there — but wasn’t visible to the naked eye.”

Ellen Jacobs has worked for Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Bill T. Jones and Trisha Brown, among others.

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