Movement Enters The Computer Age

Merce Cunningham's choreography starts on a screen

``ENTER'' is the name of a Merce Cunningham dance. It has at least two meanings, one old, one new: as a stage direction, and as a computer command. This dance, premiered in 1992, was most recently aired at the Edinburgh Festival. In it, the computer world meets the dance world.

It mingles primal exploration of human movement with Cunningham's long choreographic experience. The dance is further proof that this 75-year-old choreographer, far from considering an exit, continues with youthful experimentalism to press ``enter.'' His determination to push and pull dance (and dancers) in fresh directions is unabated. One of the tools he uses today is a dance computer called Lifeforms.

According to Cunningham, nearly one-third of the phrases of movement in ``Enter'' were worked out on the computer, with figures representing the dancers' bodies.

Watching this piece in performance, the eye is engaged by the sheer three-dimensionality of Cunningham's movement. The dance is multisided, like sculpture in motion, even on a proscenium stage. Viewers are taken on a voyage of discovery around the moving figures. Sometimes Cunningham stills them into a pose or a shape, or develops phrases in a controlled, almost contemplative, slow motion.

Before the festival performances, Cunningham gave a press briefing. One less-than-tactful questioner asked whether Cunningham appeared on stage in some of his works (as he does in ``Enter'') for ``his own pleasure or for other people's?''

Unoffended, he said: ``Both, I hope!'' Then he told how a friend, when he told her about the upcoming 30th-anniversary program of ``Events'' in New York, asked him if he planned to appear on stage. ``When somebody says that, I don't know whether they mean they hope I will or won't.'' But he added quietly: ``The idea of not doing it is still strange to me.''

In ``Enter,'' his participation is crucial in order to raise questions about his dancers and their movements. To what degree are they his puppets? Where does his concept of this dance end and their contribution begin? His arresting presence insists that age does not limit imagination - or curiosity. He told one questioner at the press conference that he has never stopped being ``curious about movement. It fascinates me just as much as it always did.'' His inspiration, he said, ``comes from all kinds of movement - from watching people move and animals and wind ... all kinds of things.'' He had recently watched a TV documentary about Arizona in which a sidewinder snake moved across the desert floor. What struck him again was the need to actually see a movement before figuring out how to do it, and then how to communicate it to his dancers.

His computer seems to him just a further way of opening his awareness to what is possible in dance movements. Far from being somehow dehumanizing, he finds the machine interesting and provocative to work with. For him it is a development of at least two of his earlier ideas.

One of these ideas was to exploit what have become known as ``chance operations.'' His early collaborations with the composer John Cage and the artist Robert Rauschenberg (who has designed once more, after many years, the costumes and decor for ``Events'') contributed to Cunningham's utilization of the unplanned and unpredictable. Some of his dances could even ``change from performance to performance within certain limits.''

Another early aim of his dance was to escape from a single ``center of interest on the stage.... Something about that I didn't like.'' Einstein's statement that ``there is no fixed point in space'' struck him as ``simply superb for dancing.... Any point that you were in was the center; and also where somebody else was, was also a center.''

Making dances for video, at one period, he also found liberating - ``totally different from stage space.''

And so with the computer today, he is investigating new flexibilities. In learning to study phrases of movement on the computer - he can turn the figure on the screen in three dimensions - he is still conscious that some things his dancers cannot do.

``I had to learn so that I wouldn't get the figure into positions that no one could ever do,'' he says. But sometimes when he made it do what he thought was impossible, he didn't just say ``No, that doesn't work.'' Instead he would look at it to see something he had not seen before.

``I look at it and see what might work. And from that point of view, I've found [the computer] most opening,'' he says.

``Opening'' is definitely a Cunningham word.

* Merce Cunningham's company opens the 1994-95 season at the Joyce Theater in New York Sept. 13 to 18.

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