Blog Post

Preserving: Merce Cunningham's digital "dance capsules"

Photo: Source - The Seattle Times | August 2, 2009 ; Photographer - Steven Mark Needham.

Merce Cunningham's death on July 26 and the sadness I felt when I read the news prompted me to bring to this forum once again the question of preservation.
The choreographer had doubts about the effectiveness of the Cunningham Trust, which he created when he dissolved his dance company last June. Perhaps this doubt was occasioned by the disastrous outcome of the Martha Graham Trust, in spite of the success of other Trusts created to preserve coreographers bodies of work (such as, notably, the Balanchine Trust).

In 2009 the Cunnigham dance group closed its doors. Unlike the case of Martha Graham's trust, a group of individuals dedicated to dance were enlisted as trustees to manage the wealth of Cunninghams work by overseeing the performance of his work by other dance groups.

The Cunningham Trust developed the idea of the digital "dance capsules", which would include "performance videos, sound recordings, lighting plots, dcor images, costume designs, and production notes from rehearsal and performance periods, as well as information drawn from interviews with dancers and artistic staff" (Quote from the Trust's official site).

In the 90s, Jon Ippolito and Richard Rinehart proposed, respectively, a 'variable media' questionnaire  and a notation system appropriate for the description of new media work. While Ippolito's questionnaire aims at the identification of those attributes of an artwork that are likely to change, the notational system MANS proposes preservation vocabularies for new media that are similar to those already in place for other art forms.

The history (and stories) behind Trusts such as Martha Graham's, George Balanchine's or, more recently, Cunningham's suggest another level of concern when designing / innovating / implementing the preservation of digital art: it is a preoccupation with preserving the authenticity and integrity of the authors imprint. This may transcend taxonomies, folksonomies to the extent that it is of a more human/humane - and therefore complex nature. Or not?

I guess that what I am saying is that just like the cinema dauteur, other art forms may have a similar auteur's heavy hand, conferring a subjectivity to the work that is not easily maintained in the works re-interpretation. Can you really preserve theauteurs subjectivity the artists personal vision beyond his/her death?

Merce, you will be missed.





Cunningham was no stranger to subverting concepts like "authenticity" and "integrity" in his own lifetime. When John Cage wrote the music for Cunningham's dances, the two of them typically agreed on some basic rhythmical foundation--as in the number of movements and their duration--and then went off into separate rooms to create the two parts. Only when both had finished and the two were performed simultaneously did Cage's ensemble and Cunningham's troupe find out what the other had devised.

Losing Merce is a blow, but that doesn't mean his repertoire is about to vanish now that the auteur is gone. Cunningham's ethic of "interpenetration without obstruction" is far more adaptable than the fidelity to an original experience demanded by many artists and conservators working in ephemeral media.

If anything, I would be most concerned that the dynamic nature of Cunningham's work might be embalmed by well-meaning disciples who aim too carefully to emulate the original. That's why instruments like the Variable Media Questionnaire aim to help choreographers and artists specify both what needs to be pinned down as well as what needs to be left open.

For more on the application of score- and new media-based preservation to performances, you might want to check into research by Caitlin Jones and Corinna MacDonald; you can find an article by the latter ("Scoring the Work: Documenting Practice and Performance in Variable Media Art") in the winter 2009 issue of Leonardo.




We'd all love more coverage of digital arts on the site.  I hope you'll blog about this more.  Dance is my art form and Merce one of my heroes, so I am especially happy to know his digital archive lives even as I mourn his passing.


Dear Cathy, Jon and all,

It's exciting to read Jon Ippolito's own words here! I was hoping, that you could expand on the Variable Media paradigm, Jon, and so you did. Thank you! 

In another 'life" - second? parallel? - I wrote for Rhizome and NAR (Netart review) so, Cathy, rest assured I will  continue to blog on digital arts as often as I can.

Those of you interested can find out more about the 'dance capsules" by hearing this great NPR interview with Cunningham  (transcript included)) or reading this online article (DanceTeacher Magazine, August 2009)

It seems to me that 'capsule' is a particularly good term to designate a self-contained, extensive, description of an artwork...

When researching the topic I found that one of the Arts Journal blogs made some particularly good points - and presented a critical reflexion on the dance capsules- under the very telling title: 'Preserving a legacy, without a company and without notation'. In this post, John Rockwell discusses the use of video versus the Labanotation system for the description of art works using the three-dimensional space. It's worth reading.

We use 3D worlds. Are we using them to preserve 3D 'art objects' that happen in space and time? This is an honest question, by the way. We have reproductions of spaces and objects but their intention seems to be one of 're-creating' as an alternative (as in safe, unobtrusive) space for study - rather than one 'preserving' per se... Any thoughts on this?


I could never figure out Labanotation, and given the originality of Cunningham's choreographic structure I'm not surprised it wasn't useful to him. That said, in the 1980s I asked Merce--and independently David Vaughan, his archivist--whether the company had ever considered using Life Forms as an archival representation. They both replied no, Merce had only used it for composing dances.

Yet I agree that a 3D modeling tool like Life Forms--really 4D, in that it shows evolution of a dance in time--could be a terrific way to understand and re-create dance for the future.

For the long term, it would be ideal to use an open-source tool (Blender/Torque?) or a common standard (I'm not sure if Life Forms exports to one).

But in the short term, even Life Forms combines the most intuitive elements of video (who is where, viewed from any angle) with the most programmable elements of scoring (highlight, subtract, or clone individual dancers).


Hi, John, I hope we might invite you to a future HASTAC conference or maybe to Duke sometime.  Have you ever been here?  I admire your work very much, inc the work with Paik.  This exchange is such a great embodiment of what it means to bring arts and technology together seamlessly.  Thanks for this contribution.