Biped is an entrancing, wondrous work. Merce Cunningham’s latest piece, created in 1999 and premiered just after his 80th birthday, is a dance that will leave you transfigured.
Transfiguration, in fact, is a key idea in Biped, and it takes place on two levels. The first is indicated by the title’s reference to a basic fact of human existence: that we are two-footed creatures. And indeed the choreography is largely restricted to motion supported by the feet, in its steps and balances, partnering and lifts. But I can hardly say “restricted”, for the rich variety of positions, pacing and partnering is an elaborate display of just how much motion can be developed from our simple biped form. If the style seems vaguely balletic, with its high extensions and lifted weight, its emphasis on line and shape, it’s nevertheless unmistakably Cunningham: the feet planted firmly into the ground as the upper body twists and curves, the deep lunges and wide strides, the spine torqueing against the weight of the legs, the odd angles and interruptions of flow.
The dance is densely textured, continuously evolving, commanding attention to its details and its groupings. The opening segment, for example, presents a succession of solos, each dancer then disappearing almost magically through the blackness at the back of the stage. One woman returns accompanied by four others, as if a single image had suddenly been multiplied by mirrors. But then, as elsewhere in the work, their unison phrases fan away from each other, like a chord rippling out into a ragged arpeggio.
their unison phrases fan away from each other, like a chord rippling out into a ragged arpeggio
For some years now, Cunningham has been using Lifeforms software as a choreographic sketchbook and stimulus – and he has, of course, always been fascinated by that nebulous zone where the human body intersects with geometry. In Biped, he has also used motion-capture technology, by which movements from a dancer’s body are rendered and transformed into computer animation – at its simplest, as a series of moving dots.
And here is the second level of transfiguration. The stage is imperceptibly veiled by a near-transparent frontcloth, onto which are initially projected lines of blue light that move like beams from a scanning device, and later, motion-capture images of dancers. The projections, by Shelley Eshkar and David Kaiser, always reference the human figure, but the images are also transformed into coloured lines, planes and figures, creations of light and air. A spinning movement becomes a swarm of fireflies, a coloured series of planes explodes outwards like a starburst.
The projections are intermittent, and don’t overwhelm the dancers. Rather, the conjunction of image with dance suspends us between two longings, each marked by what the other lacks. The animations have a scale, range and expansiveness that the dancers cannot attain; like essences distilled from the human body, I couldn’t help but think of them as spirits, or astral projections. Yet for all their freedom and sheer beauty, they lack the physical presence that the dancers bring, the flesh, the weight, the sweat, the effort – the life.
In other words, they mark the two poles within which Cunningham works: at one end, the continual yearning for enlarging the possibilities of movement, for pushing beyond accepted physical boundaries, for creative freedom. And at the other, the necessity for the human body, the constraints of gravity and physical form, the concrete lived experience of bone and muscle.
the beauty of our grounded biped bodies counterbalanced by the beauty of abstracted images, ghostly exhalations escaping from those mortal coils.
You can certainly see those desires at work in the revivals that accompanied Biped in these programmes, Summerspace (1958) and Rainforest (1968). But Biped shows them writ large, and whereas in those earlier works you get a sense of offbeat anthropomorphism and alien intelligence, in Biped they evoked within me an image of human mortality: the beauty of our grounded biped bodies counterbalanced by the beauty of abstracted images, ghostly exhalations escaping from those mortal coils.
Gavin Bryars’ ambient score for Biped – which could easily have sounded too New-Agey in another context – provides a restful, and finally gently melancholic atmosphere, and the stage lighting (by Aaron Copp) often suggests the passage of time, clouds passing over the sun, or night following day. The cumulative power of this dance, with its intimations of life and death, reaches a visionary scale. Rarely has the encounter between the animate and the animated been presented more lyrically than here. Biped is a work to get lost in, an almost mystical place where flesh meets form, and, by extension, where body meets spirit.