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Friday, December 13, 2013

Merce Cunningham for Camera

By Rhea Daniels

Courtesy of EAI

"The use of camera has extended the sense of what dance can be, how movement behaves, and further how we see it. The two media do not compete. Each abides in its own territory.”
—Merce Cunningham

The psychological preoccupations of choreographer Merce Cunningham were not evident in his dances for the stage. In his collaborations for film, however, we can do a bit of hacking into the mind of Merce. At their essence experimental and non-narrative, Cunningham and filmmaker Charles Atlas choreograph the movement of dancers and images that inspired future multimedia artists. Through the dance of camera and human body, a potential filament of narrative could be pieced together. Often in a Cunningham work for stage, though beautiful and incredibly artful, the concept of “What was Merce thinking?” does not even play a part in the experience.

Merce was famous among other things for “chance dance.” Elements of the dance came together through procedures like the roll of dice, for example. In Cunningham for film, we can imagine a different kind of inspiration that is less about chance process. Are those particular scenes of dance and art smashed together just by chance? Watching these films, I wondered, “Is he trying to tell us something that is not just about movement? The locations—a highway, a beach, then suddenly a dance studio, a dimly lit hallway, provide a peek into the larger context of the worlds in which Merce may have envisioned his dances. Whatever storytelling that may emerge is Merce-y in style: delightfully obtuse.

Courtesy of EAI

The Cunningham works for the camera may cleave the closest to Merce’s vision as time goes on. Now that Cunningham and his company are no longer with us, even skilled artists staging faithful reconstructions of Cunningham’s work won’t be able to capture all that Merce intended. And any dancer who has tried to learn a dance from archival video can probably express the frustrating experience of, say, when the dancer they were studying moves out of frame, or an unnecessary close-up on a random body part. The films Merce by Merce by Paik (1978) and Channels/Inserts (1982) are seminal experiments in dance for camera. Everything we see is what the artists wanted us to see at the angle and in the space we are supposed to see it. The filmic transitions cleverly capture the non-sequitors that often characterize Merce’s movement style. Seeing it on film it all makes even more sense. The “meta” experience of Merce by Merce by Paik is dance film strange and wonderful—Merce himself dancing in and seemingly on top of the film, at times. The film is an unconventional work of semi-biography; it’s possibly the most unadulterated Merce we have today.

Co-presented by Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), Merce by Merce by Paik and Channels/Inserts screen as part of Migrating Forms on Sunday, December 15 at 2pm. The screening will be followed by a discussion with artist Charles Atlas and Rebecca Cleman of EAI.

[Corrected December 17, 2013]

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