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Displacing ‘Humans’: Merce Cunningham’s Crowds

‘A man is a two-legged creature – more basically and more intimately than he is anything else’ (Cunningham, 1997:86).

The impact of electronic technologies on the self-images of embodied human agents has produced both anxiety and fascination concerning the instability of the boundaries of the ‘human’. A front page article in the Guardian’s ‘Saturday Review’ section recently featured extracts from Ray Kurzweil’s book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, which describes a cyborg future, where, by 2029, ‘the majority of communication does not involve a human’, and by 2049, the ‘ubiquitous use of neural-implant technology . . . provides enormous augmentation of human perceptual and cognitive abilities’ (1999: 1-2). In the field of performance, explorations of interactions between ‘live’ performers and technology are currently stimulating debates about the relative importance of technological innovations and the human/emotional dimension of performance, which is sometimes seen as in danger of being eclipsed.(1)

In describing Cunningham dances, where, since the early 1990’s, computer technology has been employed as a choreographical tool, critics often use images drawn both from IT and from the natural world. Cunningham’s titles also point towards these sources, for example Beach Birds (1991), Enter (1992), CRWDSPCR, 1993 (named after 2 programme variants, ‘Crowd Spacer’ and ‘Crowds Pacer’), Pond Way (1998), and BIPED (1999), whose title is taken from one of the modules of Character Studio, the figure animation software created by Michael Girard and Susan Amkraut of Unreal Pictures.(2) Cunningham is currently enjoying a critical reception which at times borders on adulation. He celebrated his 80th birthday last year, but is regarded by a critical mass of choreographers, young and old, as well as by critics, as being at the cutting edge of new developments in dance. However, his early work in the 1940’s and 50’s, through to the 1960’s, frequently provoked strong opposition, and his recent work has sparked off occasional criticism reminiscent of the early days, particularly regarding its perceived lack of human emotion which can alienate some spectators. For instance, Tresca Weinstein commented in 1998: ‘What’s most chilling about Cunningham is the absence of emotion. His dancers move like well-assembled collections of body parts, powered by the force of nature or mechanics but without will or desire of their own’.(3)

From the very start, Cunningham set out, through movement, to discover new parameters of the ‘human’. This involved disrupting audience expectations of expressiveness and narrative content and structure, and dislocating familiar relations of the human body in movement to time and space. These assaults were frequently seen by contemporaries as attacks on the ‘human’ itself, particularly by contrast with the doyenne of modern dance, Martha Graham. Writing in 1968 of reactions to Cunningham in 1953, Jill Johnson said that ‘One of the key words was HUMAN. There was much discussion about what it meant to be human . . . they did feel, I guess, that Merce threatened the concept they had of what it meant to be human’ (1968: 21). In 1964, a critic wrote that ‘Graham is concerned mainly with human beings, with human relationships, the cause and effect of human behaviour. But . . . there appears not to be much inner content to [Cunningham’s works]; they seem superficial’ (Hutchinson, 1964: 621).

Cunningham enjoyed a personal and artistic partnership with John Cage from 1942 till the latter’s death in 1992, and the non-metrical structure of Cage’s music may have been an important factor in enabling Cunningham’s choreography to break away from dramatic structures of conflict and resolution, cause and effect, climax and anti-climax. Cunningham sees the famous ‘chance’ principle, inspired by the ‘I Ching’, and espoused by him and Cage, as having enabled him to transcend the limits of his individual motivations to discover new choreographical methods. His recent use of IT (as in the programme entitled ‘LifeForms’, since 1991, and motion capture, since 1997) is very much a continuum, as he has said himself, with his earlier chance methods, although the use of motion capture (seen in the dance entitled

BIPED, premiered in 1999), also raises new issues, which I shall discuss below. Moreover, the possibilities offered by television and its influence on our modes of perception are seen by Cunningham as central to his working methods. In 1977 he was quoted by Anna Kisselgoff as saying that: ‘One thing must not necessarily follow another. Or rather, anything can follow anything. We see it on television all the time. In the 20th century, this new continuity is part of the life we live’ (Jordan, 1999: 62). He continues to emphasize the crucial importance for him of the influence of television. Wired News reported recently that: ‘he told [Paul] Kaiser that he saw BIPED as working with the idea of television channel-surfing. This motif was apparent in the demonstration. Movement phrases are combined and recombined, and scale and pacing are in constant flux. The scrim in front falls into slowly falling lines, in sharp contrast to the dancers’ quick, irregular movements’ (Scarry, 1999a).

In 1952, Cunningham affirmed that ‘[the chance] method might lead one to suspect the result as being possibly geometric and "abstract", unreal and non-human. On the contrary, it is . . . no more abstract than any human being is, and as for reality, it is just that, it is not abstracted from something else, but is the thing itself, and moreover allows each dancer to be just as human as he is’ (1997: 87). The pithy dryness of this statement is typical of Cunningham’s pronouncements about his own work, which promote a strongly Zen-like or phenomenological view of his dance, highlighting the value of presence, of what he calls ‘"each thing-ness"’ (1997: 87). Cunningham also declared that:

I am no more philosophical than my legs, but from them I sense this fact: that they are suffused with energy that can be released in movement . .. that the shape the movement takes is beyond the fathoming of my mind’s analysis but clear to my eyes and rich to my imagination. A man is a two-legged creature – more basically and more intimately than he is anything else. And his legs speak more than they "know"’ (1997: 86).

In line with this reasoning, I shall suggest that Cunningham’s dances in fact philosophize in ways which point to consequences more radical than his intended anchoring in ‘the thing itself’. Allowing the dancer to be ‘just as human as he is’ does not assume a stable category of the ‘human’. Cunningham’s choreography in fact forces us to re-think relations, not only between space and time, but between intentionality and movement, the arbitrary and the purposeful, and even between what we conceive of as human and ‘other’ ways of moving, notably involving interactions with animal and computerized forms of movement. The effect is to destabilize – literally – and displace – literally – our received ideas of the ‘human’.

The markedly more positive reception of Cunningham’s recent work can be ascribed partly to a widely felt need to find, as Cunningham put it, the ‘complexity, not the confusion’, in our daily lives (Jordon, 1999: 62), but also to a pressing sense of the need to resolve the relation between the human and the technological in ways which can allow us to see a future for the human as we know it. Hence the delight of the critic Joan Acocella, writing in the New Yorker last year, having seen a Cunningham programme which included BIPED: ‘In the program as a whole, with the company dancing so feelingly against a background of electronic music and computer imagery, we witnessed a larger truce [than that between ballet and modern dance]. C.P. Snow’s "two cultures", technology and humanity, the machine and the soul: friends for a night!’ (1999: 84). Later in the review, she speculated that Cunningham may believe that there is a unity in the cosmos which we don’t know about, and also that many of his fans think the same. ‘Cunningham’s audience has always been extraordinarily fervent, and this may be in part because his work implies a faith that people can enter into and still sleep late on Sunday’(1999: 86).

Comments by critics leave no doubt that a large part of the attraction of Cunningham’s dance for contemporary audiences lies in its appeal to a kind of utopian imagination, rooted in the corporeal, in which the human intermingles with the natural (animal) and the technological. In fact, some critics even suggest that certain works by Cunningham transcend the human itself in a Zen-like, cosmic space, which has a meditative and reconciling effect. Beach Birds ‘offer[s] a vision of heightened reality . . . its creatures on stage are super-real’ (Kisselgoff, 1992). It is ‘a movement meditation on the sea from the shore side’ (Valis Hill, 1992: 57): it evokes ‘a sense of a peaceful world remote from human concerns’ (Sulcas, 1991: 27); ‘a palpitating serenity’ (Vranish: 1994). Similar comments have been made about Enter. ‘With Enter, Cunningham shows us the joy of duly experiencing the evanescent moment, the significance, rather than the meaninglessness, of being a mere grain in the sands of time, and the appreciation of death as an entirely natural element in the life cycle . . You come away from an encounter with such work lighter, freer, less trapped in your self, more connected to a cosmos that may be unfathomable but is no longer forbidding or alien’ (Tobias: 1993, 93).

Many critics are reassured by what they see as Cunningham’s privileging of the human over the technological, and their comments indicate a desire for a hierarchical synthesis, of the kind criticized by Derrida as a Hegelian ‘Aufhebung’ (sublation), where the ‘inferior’ side of the opposing binary is subsumed into a greater whole.(4) ‘For all of this computerized invention, Enter is a celebration not of technology but of the triumphant flexibility of the human mind and body to grow, change’ (Robertson, 1994: 73). ‘What both men [Cunningham and Tudor] seem to be saying [about Enter] is, "We didn’t make this piece." It’s untouched by human hands. Its mother was a microchip. And, as usual, with Cunningham’s work, the piece looks thrillingly human.’ (Acocella: 1993). Intersubjectivity is seen as taking on utopian dimensions. ‘The dancers [in Enter] strid[ing]on long, straight legs, take on the colour of heroes, members of some utopian society of the future’ (Jowitt: 1993). In CRWDSPR , ‘the 13 dancers look like a throng up there on the stage, and an idealized one at that. The dancers enjoy the companionship of others, yet define their own space. Individual and group actions happen simultaneously. The relationships between the dancers are in constant flux, yet there is never a sense of loss. Although the stage picture is buzzing with activity, every movement is clear, chaos without a mess’ (Goldner: 1994). CRWDSPR has been described as ‘Cunningham at his jolliest . . . It could have been rush hour on the New York subway. Yet it was much more fun, for this apparent chaos was both organized and cheerful’ (Anderson and Dorris, 1994: 795). By contrast, others find the automated character of some of the movement alienating and dehumanizing. ‘CRWDSPR . . . with its stiff, mannequin-like hands and robotic plastique, was almost oppressively anti-human. It’s Us vs. the machines, I thought, and the machines are winning’ (Harding 1994).

However, rather than continuing to operate with binary oppositions, conflicts and/or synthesis, such as that of ‘us’ and ‘machines’, Cunningham’s choreography can be said to displace fixed categories. Many critical comments on Cunningham in fact focus on the ‘undecidability’ of movements involving interactions between the ‘human’ the ‘natural’, and the ‘automated’. The dancers in Enter have been described as ‘not quite angels, but not quite human either. Something in between’ (Berman, 1994). ‘Enter . . . it’s like some natural phenomenon – a volcano, an ocean – except that we know it’s man-made . . . we might be watching the usually invisible processes of plant growth’ (Jowitt, 1993). According to David Vaughan, Beach Birds ‘evokes not only the movements of seabirds but also those of human beings, and even the placement of rocks on the seashore’ (Vaughan, 1995: 29). CRWDSPCR suggests both utopia and chaos, humanity and technology, in ways which undermine these oppositions. ‘There’s something festive about CRWDSPCR even though the dancers often look like windup toys running amok’(5) ‘[In CRWDSPCR] . . . The dancers travel with neat, sharp little steps, like androids going about their business in some sleek city of the future . . . Everybody seems to know where he’s going, and exactly how much time he needs to get there, and everybody is, one way or another, connected to everybody else’ (Mazo, 1994).

These processes of displacement can be described in Derridean terms as ‘spacing’, or ‘différance’, in which intervals or differences are insinuated within the self-relation of an apparently self-identical entity. Derrida describes spacing in dynamic terms: it is ‘a movement, a displacement that indicates an irreducible alterity’ (Gasché, 1986: 200). It is both active and passive, since it is ‘not only the interval . . but also spacing, the operation, or in any event, the movement [my emphasis] of setting aside’. Spacing is not universal, in that its operation is different each time it takes place. At the same time, it is a necessary possibility. ‘As that according to which any entity is what it is only by being divided by the Other to which it refers in order to constitute itself, spacing is also the presignifying opening of concealed and unconcealed meaning’(Gasché, 1986: 202). In other words, the relation to an Other is not an incidental aspect of identity: it is a condition of possibility of any identity, which, in the Derridean phrase ‘always already’ differs/defers it from itself. On the one hand, the term ‘spacing’ can refer to exteriority per se: it is ‘the opening of the first exteriority in general, the enigmatic relationship of the living to its other, of an inside to an outside’ (Gasché, 1986: 199). On the other hand, the term itself indicates a particular relationship to spatio-temporal conditions, as affected by movement. The production of intervals which takes place in the activity of spacing marks at once ’the insinuation of a space into the supposedly self-sufficient present’, but also the ‘becoming-time of space’(Gasché, 1986: 198), its displacement or dislocation into time. Spacing is above all an activity, a process, a movement, which means that it cannot be pinned down and reduced to any particular semantic category. This should not be confused with the notion of ambiguity or polyvalence: it is not that the meaning is vague, or that several things are meant at once, but rather that no conceptual meaning can account for the process of spacing, which precedes and interferes with conceptual categories.

Cunningham’s choreography differs and defers temporal progression from itself by inviting perception in terms of temporally discrete moments, through techniques which are by now famous hallmarks of the Cunningham style, such as abrupt transitions and changes of tempo and direction which disrupt expectations both of choreographed and everyday human movement patterns. This may be thought of as focussing attention on the ‘present’, in accordance with Cunningham’s own views. Joan Acocella comments that ‘because A is not flowing into B, we actually see A’ (1999: 86). However, the structural dynamics which exceed and disrupt linear sequence and progression cannot themselves be subsumed into a chain of pure ‘presences’ where time and space coincide, because simultaneous ‘spatial’ moments are themselves disrupted, again through familiar Cunningham devices such as decentralized staging and multiple activities which defy unified perception. Choreographical ‘spacing’opens up both space and time to their ‘exterior’, rendering them incommensurate with themselves but also preventing them from being subsumed into each other. In Beach Birds, for instance, stillness constantly interacts with movement, both sequentially and simultaneously. Very tiny movements insinuate temporal ‘intervals’ in space, and the almost constant presence of stillness infiltrates the movement, insinuating space into time. What is foregrounded here is neither time nor space per se, but the active displacement of these categories. Moreover, the category of the ‘human’ is frequently itself opened out to comprise characteristics which may be thought of as its ‘exterior’. Just as it ‘it divides the presence of the "now" within itself’ (Gasché, 1986: 202), spacing divides the presence of the ‘human’ within itself. Derrida’s use of the term ‘spacing’ therefore helps to elucidate both the ways in which Cunningham orchestrates seeming opposites (such as stillness and movement, space and time, human and non-human), in his choreographical processes, and the ways in which critics perceive seemingly contradictory qualities in his work.

Cunningham’s displacements of space/time and human/non-human oppositions converge strikingly in his choreography for groups and crowds, where movement constantly disperses and re-groups quasi-sculptural configurations consisting of individuals, couples and clusters, in patterns which seem both arbitrary and necessary. A key aspect of the ‘spacing’ of the human is in fact the process playfully alluded to by Cunningham in the title of CRWDSPCR: through differential movements in both time (pacer) and space (spacer), the polarity of individual and group is displaced in the ‘crowd’, which evokes both human and non-human – natural and/or computerized – patterns. The title of CRWDSPCR playfully draws attention to linguistic ‘spacing’ through the removal of vowels, which are present only virtually, through their absence, producing a ‘crowding’ of the letters themselves on the page. This interest in word play is characteristic of Cunningham. Joyce’s influence on Cage is well known, and Cage and Cunningham frequently ‘browsed’ Finnegan’s Wake, which inspired the titles of several of Cunningham’s dances, beginning with In the Name of the Holocaust in 1943, which Cunningham described as ‘a word play by Joyce . . . on "In the name of the Holy Ghost"’.(6) Cunningham even wrote a ‘dance play’ in 1943, called Four Walls, whose word plays show a strong Joycean influence (Vaughan, 1997: 34), where individual letters and sounds are ‘choreographed’ to form new words.

In CRWDSPCR, it is extremely difficult to separate ‘individual’ from ‘group’ movements. Where large numbers of dancers are on stage, and individual dancers are performing quite disparate movements, they nonetheless function as part of the group, even at the basic level of not bumping into each other when moving very fast and in complex patterns across a crowded stage. (A rehearsal moment captured on video(7) demonstrates this in reverse!) Sometimes dancers perform similar movements, even though spatially positioned as individuals rather than in pairs or groups. The movement impetus appears to be collective rather than individual, as if ‘programmed’ from outside, by natural or computerized processes. Tobi Tobias notes that: ‘the whole business [CRWDSPCR] – undeniably lovely, inexplicably stirring – feels arbitrary and inevitable at the same time’ (1994: 66). As Roslyn Sulcas comments on Loosestrife: ‘as always, the appearance of improvisation coexists with a sense of cool rigor; the brief groupings and dispersions seem unmeditated but necessary’ (1992: 94). At the same time, what may appear to be unison ‘group’ movements are very often differed/deferred from within by variations in terms of s/pacing. Precisely this aspect of CRWDSPCR was panned by a critic in the North Carolina Beacon apparently unfamiliar with Cunningham’s style and aims, who commented in 1993 that ‘perhaps MC could have choreographed a piece conveying individuality while making sure his dancers behaved like a company instead of individuals . . . Only rarely, and probably by accident, were the dancers in synch. For the other 99 percent of the time, one dancer would be just a little off from the others, throwing off the moment and ruining the effect’ (Gay, 1993).

The interactions seen in CRWDSPCR between the individual and the collective, the apparently inevitable and the apparently arbitrary, are typical of Cunningham’s choreography, and have close parallels in Beach Birds and Pond Way. Pond Way, which can be seen as a companion piece to Beach Birds and other nature pieces, and where the dancers are often compared with insects or waterbugs, has been described as looking like ‘nature run through a computer’ (Weinstein, 1998). Here we see small differences in movements which are frequently suggestive of groupings, but no definite configurations. However, there is a strong sense that the figures are functioning as a co-ordinated group, even when they are performing different movements. In Beach Birds, the quirky fragmentations of the body, the oddly angled limbs, and, at times, a quasi-robotic rigidity and stiffness, show the influence of ‘LifeForms’, which encouraged Cunningham to choreograph separately for different parts of the body (arms, legs, torso), thereby making rhythms less organic and increasing their complexity.(8) At the same time, Beach Birds famously captures a range of bird-like, but also human movements. Leslie Kendall speaks of ‘a whole vocabulary of familiar, angular motions: twitching, jerking, hopping, leg shaking, wing stretching, head cocking, group immobility, encroaching on one another’s territory for territory or pairing’ (Kendall, 1983). Alastair Macaulay comments: ‘There are several passages in which the dancers might be rocks or pebbles; passages which are as human as they are birdlike, such as the male duets in which Fréréric Gafner and Thomas Caley pace to and fro as if warily competing for territory, and passages in which wholly human behaviour melts into birdlike behaviour, as in a brief duet for Gafner and Kimberley Bartosik’ (Macaulay, 1995: 263). Clement Crisp described the dancers as ‘like gulls and not like gulls’ (2000: 18). Cunningham referred to the significance in Beach Birds of ‘birds, obviously, or animals or whatever’, rocks (‘the way you are looking at a rock and you go round it, and it looks different each time, as though it were alive too’), and, on a typically laconic note, he added: ‘I used the idea of a bird, and then since dancers are also human beings, I thought I might as well include that’ (Vaughan, 1997: 258).

The destabilization of the category of the ‘human’ can be reinforced by elements of décor and sound as well as movement. Jack Anderson comments on Beach Birds that ‘the impression of avian fluttering is reinforced not only by passages of quivering and flapping, but also by the fact that the arms and shoulders of the costumes designed by Marsha Skinner are black, whereas the rest of the outfits are white. The arms therefore become especially winglike in appearance’ (Anderson, 1994). They appear elongated because the hands are gloved in black. Moreover, the costumes have a direct effect on how the movements are perceived. ‘These costumes and the amazingly odd arm movements that Cunningham has invented conspire to make the dancers’ upper bodies seem cut off from the lower ones’ (Goldner, 1992). In CRWDSPR, the costumes segment the body, following the LifeForms computer programme, into fourteen sections, vertically and horizontally.(9) David Vaughan affirms that in Beach Birds ‘the lights change on the white backcloth according to a chance-devised lighting plan’ (1995: 29). Interestingly, however, the lighting can evoke naturalistic effects: ‘Marsha Skinner, a painter from Taos, New Mexico, opts for dominant azure lighting on the backdrop, sometimes tinged with a dawnlike pink. The openness of an ocean is always suggested’ (Kisselgoff, 1992). It also indicates structured progression: ‘In Beach Birds, Marsha Skinner has the dancers at first silhouetted against a deep-blue sky; dawn light slowly rises; finally, they dance against a warm orange’ (Macaulay, 1992: 93). In the film, Beach Birds for Camera 1991 (which begins in black and white and later changes to colour), the director, Eliot Caplan, responded to elements of the stage version: ‘Because the costumes were black and white, I wanted the film to be black and white too . . . I was inspired by Merce, who said that the piece was like a landscape’ (Caplan, 1992). Cage’s music – FOUR3 – has been described as ‘a soundscape – the soft and swishy sound of seashells poured out of a vessel and the solitary pluck of a bass’ (Valis Hill, 1992: 57). At the same time, Janice Berman comments that ‘irksome electronic whines occasionally remind us that this is not supposed to be a replication of nature or of anything other than what it is’ (Berman, 1992).

In Pond Way, too, the lighting suggests both naturalistic and artificial effects: ‘the shifts from warm to red side lighting, designed by David Covey . . . subtly suggest the passage of a day . . . the shifting patterns are very like the large and small black circles that form the suggestion of an image in the white canvas behind the dancers’ (Dunning, 1998). For this dance, Cunningham asked Roy Lichtenstein to make a backcloth in the style of the paintings in his recent exhibition of ‘Landscapes in the Chinese Style’ (influenced by Edgar Degas’ landscape monotypes). Lichtenstein died before executing this commission, but his widow allowed Cunningham to select a painting to be used for the dance (Vaughan, 1998: 21). As Tresca Weinstein points out, this backdrop (‘Landscape with Boat’) and the unusual shapes created by the costumes, which can make the dancers’ bodies suggestive of insect-like forms, create interesting tensions and interactions between natural elements and computerized patterns. ‘The play between mechanics and nature is reflected in the costumes and décor for the piece. A dot-matrix Roy Lichtenstein landscape emphasizes the sense of data being endlessly processed, while Suzanne Gallo’s draping costumes suggest wings or extra sets of limbs’ (Weinstein, 1998).

In BIPED (1999), Cunningham’s use of motion capture, in collaboration with Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser, displaces the boundaries of the ‘human’ in more radical ways than hitherto. Here, human movement itself generates, through the mediation of digital technology and the creative input of individuals, ‘other’, virtual bodies. The live dancers on stage are seen together with abstract images and dancer figures hand drawn by Eshkar, and animated by motion capture data provided by real dancers, projected in front of the stage on a large scrim.(10) The curtain rises on an ambiguous space which is at once self-contained and open to the audience. We see vertical bars of light aligned assymmetrically along the back wall of the stage, with similar bars projected on the front scrim, more vertical bars at the side, and shifting squares of light moving across the floor. The lines projected on the otherwise transparent scrim at the front create a rainbow-like effect of visibility and intangibility.

It is into this space, at once mysteriously set apart from and open to the audience, that the dancers - initially a series of soloists – make their entrances, wearing shimmering, assymmetrically cut leotards designed by Suzanne Gallo. At first, the projection on the scrim is static, but then, in an intimation of what is to come, a cropped blue vertical line unexpectedly begins to slide along from right to left. Later, even more unexpectedly, the dancers on stage are joined by very large, sketchily drawn, dancing figures of light projected on the scrim above and in front of the live dancers. The status of these figures is ambiguous. The combination of the gestural lines of Shelley Eshkar’s drawing and the rhythmic movements derived from the captured motion of real dancers evokes a form of dance which defies distinctions between the embodied and the disembodied, the human and the abstract. The large size of the figures and their position above the dancers, who do not engage directly with them, can also suggest a supernatural presence. They cast shifting reflections in the vertical lines along the back of the stage, emphasizing the enclosed, refractive nature of the performance space. Their sketchy presence is never more than fleeting: they appear and disappear mysteriously at intervals throughout the dance. Shelley Eshkar said that: ‘we conceived of it [the projection of lines] as a forest, a forest of poles, and at any point in this three-dimensional forest of poles a figure could emerge, but clipped in a two-dimensional way, as though it had just come out of nowhere’ (‘Summerdance’). Moreover, this dis/appearance is paralleled in the live dancers, who sometimes come on stage from the back, in Cunningham’s words, like ‘something coming out of space, out of fog: the shape isn’t discernible till it appears’, and who, when they exit through the back, seem to ‘disappear into thin air’.(11) Cunningham specified that this effect was in fact ‘prompted by what happened with the technology’ adding ‘you have to keep your eyes open’.(12)

Eshkar also explained that the lines at the back came about through co-operation with Aaron Copp, the lighting designer. Rather than coincidental juxtaposition of different media, as is usual in Cunningham dances, aspects of the juxtaposition would seem here to be more deliberately orchestrated. Kaiser and Eshkar see themselves as ‘providing a series of lenses – each lense alters how we see the dance’ (‘Focus Day’). For Kaiser, ‘the dance is successful if your perception of the dance has been affected by the projections, even when they aren’t present on the screen’ (‘Summerdance’). The order in which the computer-generated movement sequences are projected was decided by chance operations. Cunningham was given 25 computer files, and used chance to organize them. However, having observed the projected figures in the performances of BIPED at Berkeley, Eshkar and Kaiser noted that they appeared to move far more quickly on the large scrim than they had on the computer screen, and decided to make changes in their colour balance, scale and velocity. Slowing down the larger figures gave them greater mass (‘Focus Day’). Moreover, interactions between live dancers and projected images are not limited to the virtual dancer figures. On first viewing, I found these were the most striking of the projected images, but on second and subsequent viewings I was struck increasingly forcibly by other aspects of the computerized projections, notably the assymmetrical rhythms of the vertical bars of light, moving at uneven speeds across the scrim, combining and separating. Horizontal lines also make an appearance, again moving assymmetrically, in changing colours and widths. One projected dancing figure is composed of straight lines which disperse and re-gather as it leaps. On one level, this is purely abstract, but on another level, as Kaiser pointed out, ‘one can still feel original mass and weight’ (‘New Bodies’). Some images are composed of discs moving in patterns which can evoke insects, especially spiders, but may also relate to the original motion capture images seen on a monitor, which Cunningham compared to ‘a moving Christmas tree with lights’ (‘Focus Day’).

Whereas the dancers are frequently seen moving without any images being projected on the scrim, the projected images are always perceived in counterpoint with the complex rhythms of the dancers. Unlike many Cunningham pieces, there are no moments of stillness here – the dancers are in constant motion, whose velocity sometimes contrasts with slower movements on the scrim. Especially near the beginning, it is noticeable that when there are numerous dancers on stage they frequently perform rhythmically complex movements in which, although similar gestures and sequences are used, each dancer’s movements are individual and specific and follow their own timing. There is also a lot of duet and some unison work, with growing emphasis on repetition of certain gestures, notably a raised right arm. Towards the end of the dance, the movement takes on increasingly ritualistic qualities (notably the use of raised arms), with configurations suggesting Egyptian-like friezes. This quality is accentuated by a ‘clothing’ sequence (Suzanne Gallo’s idea), where the male dancers come on stage carrying shirt-like tops with which they dress the female dancers, and by the ceremonial lifting (a recurrent motif in Cunningham) of a female dancer, held aloft in horizontal position by several male dancers. (The vertical-horizontal contrast can be seen here to mirror the relationship between the upright dancer and the stage, but also that between the vertical and horizontal lines.) We also see her (Cheryl Therrien) dancing solo, at one point moving slowly, with both arms held up and bent at the elbows in a hieratic gesture. In the final lifting sequence, she is carried off stage, leaving three couples dancing. In the last few moments, several dancers are still moving, forming complex quasi-sculptural shapes, as the curtain descends. On the one occasion where I was close enough to see their expressions, at the close of the piece, the dancers (very unusual in Cunningham) were smiling, which enhanced the sense that the ceremonial character of the movement had a celebratory quality.

As with the dances already discussed, many of the most enthusiastic comments on BIPED (which has been extremely well received) emphasize what is seen as the successful fusion of dance and technology in ways which enable the human to triumph over technology. ‘The choreography was a welcome departure for Cunningham, who is sometimes criticized for turning dancers into technicians. In Biped, the dancers were sumptuously human, lengthening their limbs to full extension, fluidly moving through each phrase, and relating to each other onstage’ (Scarry, 1999b). Another critic remarks that: ‘Cunningham’s triumph here is in not allowing spectral technology to supersede live kinetics’ (Hutera, 2000). However, one of the most striking aspects of the piece is the interaction between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’. Interestingly, according to Paul Kaiser, Cunningham ‘wasn’t concerned with the technology overshadowing the dancers. He was more interested in the collision between the two worlds’ (Scarry, 1999a). It is precisely because Cunningham (in Derridean fashion) both maintains and undermines differences (here, between the real and the virtual) by constant metamorphoses between categories that his work creates exciting displacements and tensions which cannot be resolved in univocal interpretations. There is, moreover, an experiential dimension of the relation to ‘otherness’ which is not explored in Derridean discussions of ‘spacing’. In BIPED, this involves interpenetration of real and virtual spaces, where, through kinesthetic empathy with the virtual as well as the live dancers, spectators can experience a breakdown of boundaries between human and ‘other’ corporealities.

Kaiser specified that he and Eshkar had deliberately avoided making the virtual dancers do things which the human body couldn’t do, and, as noted above, that one can still feel ‘original mass and weight’ (‘New Bodies’). At the same time, the figures are sketchily drawn, emphasizing their virtuality. Cunningham described this as ‘visually marvellously interesting – the skeleton of the movement but not the fill-out’ (‘New Bodies’). What the virtual dancers conserve of human embodiment is encapsulated in movement qualities, which are true to the dynamics of the human body. Motion capture even conserves the idiosyncracies of the movement patterns of individual subjects. Although the dancer figures can connote ‘life forms’ beyond the human, they are not simply ‘disembodied’, but rather differently embodied, being true, according to Kaiser, not to appearance but to movement (‘New Bodies’). Moreover, spectators of BIPED can experience dislocations of time and space, through the irregularity of the rhythms of the dancers, the computerized projections and the interactions between them, and the ‘dematerialization’ of the space of the stage through use of the devices described above. Eshkar described the entrances and exits of the dancers at the back as a ‘logic of appearing and disappearing in a way that doesn’t have to do with the physicality of the real stage’ (‘Focus Day’). According to one critic, ‘the dancers seemed to exist in a pulsating space that was in constant flux’ (Felciano, 1999: 72).

In conclusion, then, Cunningham’s work of the nineties and after (which follows on from and develops key characteristics of his earlier work) exploits the spectator’s capacity for kinesthetic empathy with ‘other’, unexpected ways of moving and with virtual bodies, in which the worlds of nature and of IT play a key role, thereby displacing and opening up bipedal identities to unforeseen possibilities.


1. For instance, recent discussions on the Dance Technology zone,

For the purposes of this discussion, the adjective ‘human’ will refer to psychological attributes and physical characteristics ascribed to human beings, such as capacity to feel and express emotions, and to move according to parameters defined by the human body. The former, psychological dimension is of particular importance to proponents of ‘humanist’ values.

2. For background on this, see

3. Jack Anderson commented that the worst of Cunningham’s works are ‘bland’. ‘Their steps, though arranged by chance methods, are studiously tasteful, even bloodless.’ (1993: 786). Cathryn Harding, writing in Isthmus, comments on ‘how passionless and discomfiting a digitally driven world can be’ (1994).

4. See discussion of Derridean ‘différance’, p.? below. ‘Différance’ works to subvert synthesis in the form of Hegelian sublation or ‘Aufhebung’. For a lucid dialogue on this topic, see Derrida’s interview with Jean-Louis Houdebine and Guy Scarpetta in Derrida 1972/1981. See also Broadhurst 1999: 49.

5. ‘MC Dance Company at City Center’, Voice, 22 March 1994. CDF. No further details available.

6. Cited by David Vaughan, in Merce Cunningham, Fifty Years (New York: Aperture 1997): 29. See also p.32.

7. See reference to CRWDSPCR video below.

8. This can also be seen as an extension of the ‘chance’ principle of juxtaposing unconnected events.

9. See David Vaughan, Merce Cunningham, 268, for more details.

10. BIPED was preceded in 1997-8 by a virtual choreographical installation using motion capture, produced by Cunningham, Eshkar and Kaiser, entitled ‘Hand Drawn Spaces’.

11. Merce Cunningham interviewed by Alastair Macaulay, ‘Merce Cunningham Focus Day’, 14 October 2000, Barbican Centre, London.

12. Speaking at ‘New Bodies, New Realities: Live Chat Room’, 15 October, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London.


Note: ‘CDF’ denotes materials held in the archives of the Cunningham Dance Foundation (55 Bethune St, New York, NY 10014) for which full bibliographical references are not available.

Acocella, Joan (1993), ‘Merce’s Microchippendales’, Daily News, 11 March. CDF.

Acocella, Joan (1999), ‘The Gambler: Merce Cunningham, at eighty, continues to roll the dice’, The New Yorker, 9 August, 84-87.

Anderson, Jack (1993), ‘New York Newsletters: Cunningham and Feld’, The Dancing Times, LXXXII (992), 786-7.

Anderson, Jack (1994), ‘Hints of Sea and Sky Amid Stillness’, The New York Times, Tuesday, March 15. CDF.

Anderson, Jack and George Dorris (1994), ‘NewYork Newsletter: Carousel in New York’, The Dancing Times, LXXXIV (1004: May), 795-797.

Beach Birds 1991, choreography Merce Cunningham, music (‘Four’) by John Cage, costumes and lighting by Marsha Skinner.

Beach Birds for camera (film version) 1991, choreography Merce Cunningham, directed by Elliot Caplan, Design by Elliot Caplan, Tim Nelson, Matthew Williams, Marsha Skinner

Berman, Janice (1992), ‘Mastering the Acts of Nature’, New York Newsday, 19 March. CDF

Berman, Janice (1994), ‘Cunningham Company Boasts on Vital "Extra"’, New York Newsday, 11 March. CDF

BIPED 1999, choreography Merce Cunningham, music by Gavin Bryars, computer-enhanced decor by Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar, costumes by Suzanne Gallo.

Broadhurst, Susan (1999), Liminal Acts: A Critical Overview of Contemporary Performance and Theory. London: Cassell.

Caplan, Eliot (1992), programme for Beach Birds for Camera and Torse, Sunday 15 November, Cinémathèque de la Danse and Opéra de Paris Garnier, translation mine.

Crisp, Clement (2000), ‘Pierrot’s journey is still marvellous’, Financial Times, Thursday 8 June, 18.

CRWDSPCR 1993, choreography Merce Cunningham, Music (‘blues 99’) by John King, scenery and costumes by Mark Lancaster

Cunningham, Merce (1997) ‘The Impermanent Art’, pp.86-7 in David Vaughan, Merce Cunningham, Fifty Years. New York: Aperture.

Décor, choreography Merce Cunningham, music (‘Landscape with Boat’) by Roy Lichtenstein, Costumes Suzanne

Derrida, Jacques (1972), Positions. Paris: Minuit. (Positions, transl. Alan Bass, 1981. London: Athlone Press.)

Dunning, Jennifer (1998), ‘By an Evolving Cunningham, Lyrical yet Larger Movement’, The New York Times, Monday 3 August. CDF.

Enter 1992, choreography Merce Cunningham, music (‘Neural Network Plus’) by David Tudor, scenery and costumes by Marsha Skinner, backdrop and costume photography from a video still by Elliot Caplan, ‘Rideau de sc– ne’ by John Cage.

Felciano, Rita (1999), ‘Dance a little dream of Merce’, Dance Magazine, July 1999, 72.

Gasché, Rodolphe (1986), The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection. London: Harvard University Press.

Gay, Nathan J (1993), ‘Cunningham delights some, irritates others’, North Carolina Beacon, 22 July. CDF.

Goldner, Nancy (1992), ‘The Cunningham spirit in leaps and bounds’, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Thursday March 19. CDF.

Goldner, Nancy (1994), ‘Merce Cunningham’s new work, "Crwdspcr"’, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Thursday 12 March. CDF.

Harding, Cathryn (1994), ‘Mechanical Genius’, Isthmus, 4 March. (CDF)

Hutchinson, Ann (1964), ‘The Merce Cunningham Company’, The Dancing Times, LIV (648: September), 620-1 and 662.

Hutera, Donald (2000), ‘Cunningham dance show is high-tech triumph’, Star Tribune, Minneapolis, 7 March. CDF.

Johnson, Jill (1968), ‘My Memory about certain things’, Dance Perspectives (34), 21.

Jordan, Stephanie (1999), pp. 61-69 in ‘Freedom from the Music: Cunningham, Cage and Collaborations’, in Germano Celant (ed) Merce Cunningham. Milan: Charta, 1999.

Jowitt, Deborah (1993), ‘Like Lava’, Village Voice, 23 March. CDF.

Kendall, Leslie (1983), ‘Cunningham dancers focus on pure movement at the Pillow’, The Daily Gazette, 8 July, CDF.

Kisselgoff, Anna (1992), ‘Surreal Beach Life Amid the Silences of Unreality’, New York Times, Thursday 19 March. (CDF)

Macaulay, Alastair (1992), ‘Happy Hooligan’, The New Yorker, 27 April, 90-93.

Macaulay, Alastair (1995), ‘Merce Cunningham Dance Company’, The Dancing Times, LXXXVI (1023: December), 263.

Macaulay, Alastair (1999), ‘Nice footwork from the master of reinvention’, Financial Times (NY) 5 May, 13.

Mazo, Joseph H. (1994), ‘In Step with the Software’, The Record, Friday 14 March. CDF.

‘Merce Cunningham Dance Company at City Center’ (1994), Voice, 22 March. CDF.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1964), Le Visible et l’invisible. Paris: Gallimard.

Robertson, Allen (1994), ‘Merce, Mark and Miami’, Dance Now, 3 (3), Autumn, 70-73.

Pond Way 1998, choreography Merce Cunningham, music (‘New Ikebukuro’) by Brian Eno,

Scarry, Siobhan (1999a), ‘Devising the Digital Dance’, in Wired News, 20 April:

Scarry, Siobhan (1999b), ‘In Step with Digital Dance’, Wired News, 26 April:

Sulcas, Roslyn (1991), ‘Merce Cunningham, Théâtre de la Ville, Paris’, Dance and Dancers (November), 26-27.

Sulcas, Roslyn (1992), ‘Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Théâtre de la Ville, Paris’, September 10-21, 1991’, Dance Magazine (January), 94-6.

Tobias, Tobi (1993), ‘From Here to Eternity’, New York Magazine, 29 March 1993, 93.

Tobias, Tobi (1994), ‘Age and Innocence’, New York Magazine, 4 April, 66.

Valis Hill, Constance (1992), ‘Merce Cunningham Dance Company at City Center Theater, Premiere of "Beach Birds"’, Attitude 8 (3), Spring/Summer, 57.

Vaughan, David (1995), ‘Merce Cunningham returns to London’, The Dancing Times, LXXXVI (1021: October), 29-31.

Vaughan, David (1997), Merce Cunningham, Fifty Years. New York: Aperture.

Vaughan, David (1998), ‘Merce Cunningham at the Barbican’, The Dancing Times, LXXVIII (1055: October), 19 and 21.

Vranish, Jane (1994), ‘Cunningham Daring, but a bit more accessible’, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Monday 26 September.

Weinstein, Tresca (1998), ‘Cunningham’s work is full of beauty’, Times Union, Albany, NY, Thursday 30 July. CDF.


‘Merce Cunningham Focus Day’, 14 October 2000, Barbican Centre, London.

‘New Bodies, New Realities: Live Chat Room’, 15 October, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London.



CRWDSPCR. (1996). 55 minutes, color. Available in film and video. Choreography by Merce Cunningham. Directed by Elliot Caplan. Music by John King ("blues 99"). Produced by the Cunningham Dance Foundation, Inc.

SUMMERDANCE, ‘MERCE CUNNINGHAM’. (2000). Directed by Charles Atlas. Executive director, Sheldon Schwartz. BBC 2, 26 August.