Ancient flesh-and-blood, brand new technology

<i>Merce Cunningham Dance Company</i> | Barbican Theatre, London
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

While some of us half his age take fright at even switching on our computers, contemporary dance's 81-year-old maestro Merce Cunningham forges ever onwards in a domain where performance art meets digital technology.

While some of us half his age take fright at even switching on our computers, contemporary dance's 81-year-old maestro Merce Cunningham forges ever onwards in a domain where performance art meets digital technology.

For nine years now he has been using LifeForms software as a choreographic tool, creating dance phrases on screen figures before teaching them to his dancers. But here comes Biped, a piece that was premiered last year and in which computer-generated images actually become part of the performance, mixed with his flesh-and-blood company.

Lasting 45 minutes and deploying 14 dancers, Biped is an epic, elegiac piece that incorporates capture motion animation by Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar. By this means, Kaiser and Eshkar transposed the movement of three company dancers on to a 3-D semi-transparent "Biped" figure which is then projected on to a front scrim. Sometimes the Biped appears directly; sometimes it is abstracted into geometric shapes; sometimes there is nothing.

When the scrim is blank, you can mostly focus on the live choreography behind, evolving in what could be a darkened display case. Each group or soloist reveals their idiosyncratic movement as if belonging to a particular sub-species - dance that is bizarre but classical in its clarity and disciplined structures.

When the Biped silhouette looms, it seems to underline this anthropological theme, drawing attention to the human body and reinforcing our role as people-watchers, the equivalent of an ornithologist watching birds. When the projections are reduced to stripes, the dancers then seem to inhabit a forest, the stripes so distributed as to produce an illusion that some seem further away, and you are not sure whether they are in front or behind the dancers. Other shapes take over: shards, dots, or pine-needles which drift down in slow-motion. Or sometimes dots and squiggles coalesce into clusters that spiral and twist like tiny water-borne organisms under a microscope.

Well, that's how it seemed to me. Behind the apparent randomness and dispassionate delivery of Cunningham's work is a powerful organising mind that gives you the material for you to make your own associations. Meanwhile, Gavin Bryars's score, also called Biped and composed under the usual Cunningham conditions - in which only the piece's duration was specified, creates a gentle environment. Bryars himself is in the pit, extending big, slow washes of sound and overlapping them with melancholic string phrases and occasional rattles.

The dance is varied and beautiful, but the trick with the accompanying technology is not to let the moving imagery become too distracting. In this, unfortunately, the piece does not succeed. Moreover, capture motion is a laborious process and its terminology inflated, describing itself aggrandisingly as creating "virtual choreography". But is it worth it? Let's not get over-excited. So far, it is no more than a new kind of stage design.

The impression of hype was echoed by some of the other events from the opening of Dance Umbrella's digital art week (we've yet to see Random Dance Company's The Trilogy Installation). Thecla Schiphorst's Bodymaps: Artifacts of Touch, at the ICA, requires you to stroke a table to activate a compendium of pictures, which is interesting for a short while in a relaxing, low-key, kind of way. Hand-Drawn Spaces (at the Barbican Pit) by Merce Cunningham, Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar, shows motion capture's Biped moving on three screens and was part of the preparation for Biped, but really suggests that real-life dancers are more fascinating than digital ones.

Meanwhile the Cunningham Dance Company continues a few yards away with Biped, performed on a double-bill with either of two classic revivals, Summerspace and RainForest, of which more in a future review.

To 14 Oct (020-7638 8891)

Comments