Saturday, 17 April 2010

Merce Cunningham on Film

"The use of camera has extended the sense of what dance can be ... The two media do not compete, each abides in its own territory."

In a way, a piece such as 'Changing Steps' (choreographed 1978, filmed 1989) is ideally suited to film, it has a proto-cinematic quality to it. The indeterminacy of the piece - its various solo and group dances can be performed in any order, separately or overlapping as space allows - suggests the process of editing, offering up all sorts of possibilities for montage and juxtaposition. In the filmed version (of which an extract is embedded above), dances cut and dissolve into each other, sometimes hanging suspended in superposition. In the fragment above, the great wooden frame, separating the foreground dance from the background, suggests a cinema screen. Similarly, in 'Beach Birds for Camera', a sequence of the dance takes place on a soundstage, before a vast blue screen, suggesting the future presence of some fantastical imagery that is yet to be filled in. The film of 'Changing Steps', as presented in Amsterdam-based Total Film's 2003 DVD, The Merce Cunningham Collection, presents a collage of film and video, the latter is often severely degraded, blurring the dancers' features, and giving the whole an eerie, spectral feel. At one point we dissolve from the flickering lines of TV static to ripples on a pond, almost perfectly matched (but not quite).

'Deli Commedia' (1985) is Cunningham's tribute to the physical comedies of the silent era. While Pat Richter's Carmen-quoting music evokes the piano accompanist in a pre-war picture palace, the dancers movements frequently evoke, not just Chaplin, but also the not-quite-silent films of Jacques Tati. It is a curious feature of Cunningham's work for camera that, despite the presence of a non-diegetic musical score, a sound recorder is employed to record the footfalls of the dancers. In his introduction to 'Deli Commedia', Cunningham says, "One of the first things I saw through the camera was that you saw things faster ... That is, you caught the image quicker ... You did not have to dwell on it as long ... " For Cunningham, as for Paul Virilio, the emergence and mastering of new technologies is a question of speed. It is through speed that the twentieth century's artworks relate to its wars.
'Beach Birds for Camera' (1993) presents the human as but a brief mediating force between two non-human technologies: the Lifeforms software Cunningham used to choreograph the dance and the camera for which the staged version (entitled simply 'Beach Birds') was later adapted. But long before he began engaging with cinema and software, Cunningham had set out, in the words of Dee Reynolds, "to discover new parameters of the ‘human’ ... These assaults were frequently seen by contemporaries as attacks on the ‘human’ itself." The notion of the expressive human subject has always been extremely fragile in his work from the very beginning. As Reynolds continues, "Many critical comments on Cunningham in fact focus on the ‘undecidability’ of movements involving interactions between the ‘human’ the ‘natural’, and the ‘automated’." Perhaps nowhere is this slippage more uncertain than in the (1999) work 'Biped', for which motion capture software is used to allow the movements of the dancers to animate computer graphic lines and shapes projected on a scrim between the stage and the audience. Watching videos of 'Biped' (a piece not designed for camera), the scrim appears scarcely noticeable and the graphic lines and figures seem to take on an astonishing 3D quality, not just leaping out at the audience, but also effectively conveying depth, and drawing the audience further in to the performance.