Merce Cunningham Trust

Notations from Merce Cunningham - Changes: Notes on Choreography

All of these systems based as they are on symbols which are translated by the dancer, are out of whack. The element of them that always troubled me was the translating act. The notator looks at a step, translates it into a symbol, writes it down then at some time later, the dancer looks at a symbol, translates it back into a step, and then does it.

But this is not the way a dancer acts. In his class an in his rehearsing he looks directly at a step, or someone doing a movement, and reorganizes that immediately into his own body. It is more direct than the symbol-syndrome. That is why the idea of recording dances in movie form seems so obvious to anyone outside the dancer's immediate world. There it is, there's the dance and all you have to do is copy it. But what you are copying is someone's interpretation of that dance, and has no more value than a record does of someone performing a work of sound. It can of course, give you the style of a dance as done by a particular dancer or group of dancers, you could too, laboriously piece together the steps from it, as musicians have done with records. Notators say the answer is in both, the film and the written notation. I don't agree, I feel the symbol notation is an unnecessary hang-up with the past frame.

It seems clear that electronic technology has given us a new way to look. Dances can be made on computers, pictures can be punched out on them, why not a notation for dance that is immediately visual? There have been some experiments that I know of made in this direction, probably there are a good many more by now. A situation that strikes me as being immediately recognizable to the dancer would be roughly like this: two screens, video or otherwise, synchronized as to time and the same size. One would have the dance on it as performed by a soloist or group, that is, a performance complete with the costumes etc. if existent. Next to it, on the second screen, images of stick figures work in depth. I use the word "stick-figures" if that's all I can think of at the moment, but they are not essential. Any kind of shape that is immediately clear to the dancer could be used. This screen is the notation. The shapes move in depth giving accurate details as to the movement, the time is indicated on the side by conventional musical score or by second, minutes-hours,

the space is defined by outlines indicating edge of stage, wings if needed, downstairs etc. If the space is unconventional, this also can be indicated. Objects in the space having to do with decor or on natural such as trees could be indicated. There are refinements necessary about this, naturally--the face for example, the exact positions (I do not mean conventional ballet positions, or modern-dance positions I do not see they would cause any difficulty) the distortions of the fingers, and the toes, small-ness not ordinarily registered.

I am aware there are problems about this. But assuming the technological arrangement could be facilitated, and given the pace of change why not this? Then the only other difficulty is psychological. The action itself is as dancers have always done, someone does a step in front of you and you repeat it. He does it again (a reverse button on the electronics is essential), and you do it again. And so the dancer adds it up as he has always done. The steps to the years I guess.

There is one other opportunity with this that I think would be more interesting. It is conceivable one could choreograph with such a device. This appeals to me. More than the museum.