For Hand-drawn Spaces, Cunningham created a large number of steps, 72 phrases in all, for what we then called our “motion alphabet.” The idea was to create the vocabulary for the dancers’ bodies, but not the choreography – this we would compose freely on the computer afterward.
Cunningham noted down the steps in a small notebook, keeping separate track of the way in which feet, legs, arms, torso, and head were to move. Curiously, once he set these steps on the two dancers, Jeannie Steele and Jarrod Phillips, they would in turn record them for study in their own in similar notebooks: but there were no overlaps in any of these idiosyncratic notations.
The phrases were all captured at the Biovision studio in San Francisco, now defunct and at the time primarily used for videogame capture (note the concrete floors). The infrared cameras tracked the position of the reflective markers positioned on each dancer, but could do so for only 25 seconds at a time.
The infrared cameras tracked the position of the reflective markers positioned on each dancer, but could do so for only 25 seconds at a time.
Our original idea was for the piece to put you into the middle of a dance. This by means of rear-projections on the four walls of a constructed room, the dancers all around you – and even passing through you. For the dance was to be choreographed as if within a single continuous space, and when dancers crossed through the center, you would hear them. (It was an odd inversion: the hand-drawn figures would look ghostly, but in a sense you would be the ghosts, disregarded & immaterial.)
Eventually we had to reconfigure the piece to three screens to accommodate the enormous animation theater of the 1998 Siggraph conference; and later still this became a smaller triptych exhibited elsewhere.
Cunningham worked side-by-side with us to choreograph the full 4-minute sequence, which took about three afternoons to do. We used the Character Studio figure animation program, which had us composing movement sequences primarily by means of arranging the footsteps of the bipeds, as the virtual models were called (thus inspiring Cunningham to name our next collaboration BIPED. We positioned the screens in the virtual space, and angled movements across & between them, drawing upon the motion library assembled earlier.
Cunningham selected movements irrespective of who danced them, and so a single virtual dancer would thus be stitched together out of the traces left by both Jarrod and Jeannie.
Shelley Eshkar created a set of five hand-drawn figures to carry the movements Merce had set on the bipeds. He studied the Cunningham movements, then devised figures to emphasize such things as “wingspan,” elevation, pivot point.