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SFU researchers’ innovative software key to choreographer Merce Cunningham’s dance legacy

November 05, 2019
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By Tessa Perkins Deneault

Merce Cunningham is one of the 20th century’s most iconic modern dance choreographers, known for utilitarian, minimalist movement that emphasizes line and shape as opposed to emotion.

A year-long celebration to mark the Merce Cunningham centennial, Merce 100, has featured events across the globe in 2019. Megan Walker Straight, an instructor at SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts and former Cunningham company dancer, organized Merce 100: Vancouver, a series of events celebrating Cunningham this October. These included a workshop on DanceForms software; a film screening of If The Dancer Dances; and an evening that featured a “choreographic response” to Cunningham performed by students in the School for the Contemporary Arts, as well as a panel discussion and a screening of the short film Melange.

What most people probably don’t know is that SFU researchers developed one of Cunningham’s most important choreographic tools, a software program called LifeForms (later referred to as DanceForms). Tom Calvert, now a professor emeritus in SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT), created the software and, in 1989, Cunningham began using DanceForms to create his dance works. His PhD student Thecla Schiphorst, now a SIAT professor, further developed it alongside choreographer and scholar Iris Garland who co-founded the dance program at SFU.

Choreographers used DanceForms as an idea generator. It shows the artist 3D views of complex movements from a multitude of different perspectives. Instead of the choreographer asking a dancer to endlessly repeat a step to help develop an idea, DanceForms shows the movement on-screen.    

Cunningham created more than a dozen works using DanceForms, including the complex Ocean, staged in the round and comprising 19 sections and 15 dancers. In a 1996 Wired article about Schiphorst’s work, Cunningham said, "Technology and the dance are now mated.”

On April 16, 2019, which would have been Cunningham’s 100th birthday, his works were presented in a multi-city event, the Night of 100 Solos, streamed live from London, New York City, and Los Angeles. Every solo presented that night was passed down from the dancer who had originally learned it from Cunningham. Walker Straight taught her solo from Native Green to Paige Amicon, a Los Angeles-based dance artist, for the LA performance.

Recreating a piece of Cunningham’s choreography for another dancer “is both interesting and disquieting,” says Walker Straight. “I want them to have their unique and original experience in the dance and simultaneously want them to dance it like it was once danced.”

In 2014, she remounted Native Green in full with dance students at the SCA. She describes Cunningham’s choreography as “lush by virtue of its sparseness in terms of everything except the density of the actual movement. There is no attachment to music, narrative, message or intention.”

Cunningham’s work lives on as his technique and choreography is passed down to the next generation of dancers.

“We are connected to the ghosts of the past,” says Walker Straight. “We move forward as artists because those of the past are rooting for us and offering insights. That gives empowerment and inspiration to our own personal paths.”