Merce Cunningham lives on in motion capture experience at Jacob's Pillow

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BECKET — Points of light move in the dark. A bright thread hovers between them, lingers like an afterimage and then fades.

The pattern shifts in the colors of a nebula.

It is an abstract work of digital art, guided by artificial intelligence. And it forms in a dancer's hands.

Paul Kaiser and Marc Downie created Loops, melding dance and visual art, with the innovative choreographer Merce Cunningham, and they are celebrating Cunningham's centennial with a double exhibit at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival this summer — a virtual reality experience in Blake's Barn and a photography exhibit in the Doris Duke Theatre.

This is the latest of several versions of Loops, Downie explained by phone. The work has evolved over 18 years.

It began with motion capture for a dance Cunningham performed solo at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in front of a contemporary painting in the 1960s. No other dancer has ever performed it, Downie said.

By the time Cunningham recorded it in motion capture, late in his life, he was wheelchair-bound, and he could perform only with his hands.

Those movements form the constellations in Kaiser and Downie's work. Sound accompanies them. Chords ebb and surge, and a man in his 80s describes New York City as he first saw it 60 years before, from Harlem to the harbor mouth.

Cunningham reads his own diary entries from his first visit from Washington state to New York City in 1937, when he was 17 years old and endlessly curious.

The music washing under him comes indirectly from Cunningham's life partner, the composer John Cage. Cage would change the tone of a piano by placing screws, bolts and other things between the strings, so that some quieted and others resounded.

In Loops, Downie has propelled the tone and rhythms of Cunningham's voice through a digital version of Cage's `prepared' piano.

"It's very personal," said Jacob's Pillow director of preservation Norton Owen, leading the way through the Pillow's archive to the VR headsets. "What struck me the first time I experienced it, in Paul Kaiser's studio — and experienced the movement and John Cage (influenced) music, and hearing Merce's voice — is that it's immersive. You're enveloped in his being."

Downie was a graduate student walking through the MIT Media Lab when a professor suggested he might work with Cunningham. The Lab was curating an exhibit, pairing students with artists.

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Downie was then working with animation systems for computer games, and he joined Paul Kaiser and Cunningham in working with motion capture technology.

Motion capture records an actor's movement, often to create an animated character. Kaiser had persuaded a motion capture studio to work with Cunningham, Downie said, and to pull the cameras in close. Usually the studio fills as large as space as possible to capture artists and athletes doing karate kicks and front rolls. But here they wanted to focus on Cunningham's hands.

He wore 48 markers on his knuckles, wrists, fingertips so the cameras and software could track his movements.

Downie and Kaiser then created a computer program to trace those actions in light. Cunningham's movements are the sole source of motion in the piece, Downie emphasized. In digital space, the markers on his hands become points of light in the dark, and they glow like fireworks.

But the abstraction is always on the edge of being recognizeable as a pair of hands.

"Our group is against abstraction as an excuse," Downie said. ""It's fun and easy to take a data set, like the weather, and use it to make some elaborate and beautiful thing that doesn't relate back to the original. But we want people to see and sense, even as a feeling in the gut, Merce's presence here."

As a dancer and choreographer, Cunningham was fascinated by technology. Late in life, he began choreographing in virtual reality, he explained at Jacob's Pillow, in July 9, 1993. (The Pillow excerpts his talk in its newly launched series of podcasts.)

Cunningham was working then with a 3D modeling computer program, mapping out movements on screen, instead of working through his own body or dancers' bodies.

In Loops, the process inverts. The program Downie and Kaiser created from Cunningham's movements can evolve continuously, and it can learn. Downie and Kaiser would track its variations, and when they saw an image they found powerful, they would name it and record it, and ask the program to work with it again.

They would sit in front of the screen and adapt: "That reminds me of Miro. (Let's have) 20 percent Miro, transitioning to large glass, then to the one that looks like a forest fire "

Downie compares the process to the choreography he has now seen countless times in dance studios, as he and Kaiser have gone on to work with other internationally known artists, Bill T. Jones, Trisha Brown, Wayne MacGregor.

"They build a set of problems and ask dancers to solve them," he said.

Knowing these are talented dancers, the choreographer pushes them off balance and looks at all the dancers, and as a movement appeals, the choreographer names it, records it and asks the dancers to repeat it, until they carry it in their bodies.


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