"A machine has no sex. Nature, on the other hand, always has a sex." "The human spirit...seems subjugated to the imperatives of technology to the point of believing it possible to deny the difference of the sexes." "Anything that...uproots us into neuterness annihilates the life in our bodies and in the body of the world, putting in their place empty and abstract mechanism of feeling, of the content of thought, of art, of ethics." Luce Irigaray, "The Female Gender," Sexes and Genealogies
One balmy night in Montpellier, France, I was part of a rare discussion with Merce Cunningham about dance and politics. It was my eighth year in his company, the fourth of working with the computer, the first time I had heard him actually voicing his very specific belief: art and politics should be kept strictly separate.
Based on the non-narrative structure of his work, his insistence on purity of form, his interest in a mathematical science of choreography, he seems true to this belief. Beyond his theory, however, lay a complex triangular relationship with technology which makes me question the complete plausibility of his statement. This relationship, which has radically altered the creative process, "look," and longevity (in terms of his physical abilities) of his work, involves the interweaving of three very different bodies and voices: the computer’s, Merce’s, the dancers’.
During my nearly nine years in his company, I grew from girl to woman, my body absorbing the language of a deconstructionist choreographer and his computer, with my own somewhere inside the two. All became part of my identity. His dances may never be about politics, but technology has filtered the political into them.
1991 marked the birth of the technological bridge between creator and subject in Merce Cunningham's work, as he opened his world of bodies moving in space and time to the virtual reality created for him in the software, LifeForms. The program offers three-dimensional, multi-colored figures whose divisible parts are pieced together in simulation of a human form. LifeForms, however, are really only a shape of space: their bodies of colored coil are see-through, their insides empty. They have no blood or organs, no heat, no fragility. No bones or flesh, they are weightless, without mass. Sexless, they do not have breasts which swell premenstrually or genitalia to be stuffed into a dance belt. No semen, eggs or womb whose vulnerability or cravings could change the course of multiple lives. They are infallible, uninjurable, consistent, without difficult personality or habits, non-confrontational, never moody or obstinate. Perfectly disciplined, they react at the touch of a finger, showing up when the screen is turned on, disappearing when the correct key is pushed. They have no intimate relationship to their own form, able to dance even in a divided, fragmented state: manipulate the torso, head, right ankle, left finger separately, and the other segments remain unaffected. Without volition, they never need to question why they are asked to do something.
A Lifeform is the perfect silent tool.
Mute, neuter, gender-neutral: perfectly politically correct. Seemingly perfectly suited to Merce’s ideology. In all its perfection, however, the lifeform does lack one element--life.
As a live explorer of movement, I continually restate, regenerate life. My life exists in the state of trying, of never knowing, of taking a chance, risking failure. My tool of skin, blood, bone is not like moveable clay, liquid paint, solid cement, or a stable lifeform. Nature changes me daily. I can never exactly repeat anything; each movement lives only in the time it is executed. I have no rewind or delete button, eraser or white out, any way to alter, perfect that moment.
As a woman, dependent only on my own form, expressing non-verbally with my sexed body, but in a non-sexual way, I find a freedom reaching far beyond feminist discourse. For my body to be an object for communication, to be useful other then biologically, to be beautiful for not only form and shape but for the language that comes out of it, I move beyond social/sexual objectification, without denying myself my femininity. I cannot escape my woman's body, with strengths, vulnerabilities, shape and language that is uniquely female. Nor do I want to escape and linger somewhere in the hazy, ambiguous realm of gender-neutrality.
This, however, is my idealist theory, and the reality of nourishing a subjective female voice inside the body of a male- created environment is a different challenge. Not impossible, but the complexity that technology adds to Merce's steps directly affects the power of communication with them.
As a female Cunningham dancer, I trained the same as a man. But my dancer body is sexed just like any other, and the sexes are different. With the genderless lifeform between Merce and me, with the neutrality inherent in the body of technology, my struggle changed: it was no longer to discover what Merce so profoundly described as "that fleeting moment where you feel alive," but to somehow humanize the steps, devising ways to remember counts and movements that had limited relationship to my own female form. The creative process, a time when I had felt very alive, experiencing the spontaneity of new life, became a period of difficult translation as steps passed from screen to paper to voice and, finally, to body.
I am an interpreter of movement, therefore I translate, but I imitated the language without real understanding. And the experience, I believe, is not the same between sexes: it is different for a woman being required to speak the language of both man and technology with the her physical form. I was expressing myself in two foreign languages, molding myself in relationship to what I was not.
This, however, is only a fragment of my subjective experience--- that of a female dancer in the first Cunningham computer generation. Technology in choreography is building a unique part of dance history, and Merce’s computer is a vital tool for his creative capacity beyond his own taste and limitations. Beyond all intellectualization, though, I will always feel the depth of emotional impact inside every process I encountered with him and the continual resonance it and he hold in my life. I know the computer enables him to continue to create beyond the ability and age of his body, keeping his work and spirit alive. I also know it can never replace.
I watched his company this summer at the State Theater, admiring from a distance their undaunting strength and technique, appreciating the vast influence of technology in the work. But when the curtain rose on Merce himself (my first time seeing him onstage without being with him), suddenly the distance evaporated, and I was there, a girl squeezing his hand, a woman thanking him, tearily overwhelmed with love and giddiness, witnessing the pure joy in his radiating face and body.
1. "LifeForms" is a human animation system devised by Dr. Tom Calvert at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia,(see Merce Cunningham, Fifty Years) and taught to Cunningham by Thecla Schiphorst. It is a choreographic tool, allowing Merce to work with virtual images before setting the steps on his dancers. It does not, however, play a part in the actual choreographic process, i.e.., it does not choose the steps, only displays them.
2. See Changes, by Merce Cunningham, 1968.