Dancing with data adds to the show
Class crunches numbers to analyze whether Merce Cunningham’s choreography should be viewed as ‘biomechanical rebellion’
The test subject danced wearing only blue shorts and the 50 silver balls the size of marbles that stuck to his skin, mapping out his physique.
"I know what I think my body is doing. But is it really doing that? I don't really know, but I'd like to," he said during a break in the afternoon session at the Motion and Gait Analysis Laboratory at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital.
A member of the Merce Cunningham modern dance company, Jonah Bokaer said he couldn't wait to see the results—a digital record of his skeleton's behavior as it undulates, spins and leaps.
He wasn't the only one.
His March 7 session provided the final data set for one of four student projects in an unusual Stanford class, Anatomy of Movement. The class, in its second year, takes an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the production of human movement.
"We're looking upside down, inside out, at the human body," said course director Amy Ladd, MD, professor of orthopedic surgery. "It's not the way any single discipline would frame the study of movement."
Ladd added, "Each project reflects an integration of disciplines spanning the humanities and sciences to portray human movement." The exercise was part of an extensive series of interdisciplinary art projects that were tied to Cunningham's performances on campus last week.
While movement is something humans do constantly without thinking, the members of this class are giving it a lot of thought: By analyzing movement from both scientific and aesthetic perspectives, they are trying to gain a deeper appreciation of why people move their muscles and bones in a particular fashion. The students evaluate golf swings, create a moving hand model, develop a standardized test for arm function and, in this particularly compelling example, probe the essence of a legendary choreographer's mode of expression.
With direction from faculty, the three undergraduates responsible for the Merce Cunningham assignment set out to reveal and quantify what they believed to be the essence of Cunningham's approach to dance. Since the choreographer has no codified set of principles for his work, the course's faculty, including Stanford dance teacher Diane Frank, who trained with Cunningham and taught for eight years in his studio, proposed a few themselves.
The central tenet they arrived at is "Biomechanical rebellion"—movements that require dancers to produce positions not generally achieved by the human body.
Next they boiled the dance style down to measurable elements. A Cunningham dancer is expected to:
Move the torso as if it were a limb, not just a support for the arms and legs
Make frequent and unexpected changes in direction
Have an extraordinary sense of balance.
Eight cameras in that lab tracked the motion of the silvery balls on their test subjects: Cunningham dancers Frank and Bokaer and course director Ladd, who also happens to be a trained ballet dancer.
"We thought that the study needed a comparison, and analyzing someone in pointe shoes would be a good contrast," said Ladd, who has studied ballet for years. "So I reluctantly agreed."
The cameras sent the data to a computer, operated by Butler. The output includes motion capture of dancers as well as quantitative information.
Why bother going to all this trouble to demonstrate something that seems obvious to anyone who has seen Merce Cunningham's "biomechanically rebellious" dance?
"When you actually quantify something artistic, even if it seems obvious, you often learn something," said Ladd, when asked before the final class presentation last week. "You often think you know how things work, but until you quantify it you don't know for sure." Eadweard Muybridge's 1878 stop-action photos of a trotting horse exemplify this—proving that for a moment the horse is suspended above the ground.
When student Joyce Pan took her first look at the dancers' data her heart sank. "It looked like we had disproved all of our hypotheses," she said. On second look, she realized she had misread the data. In fact, their predictions had all come true, save for a few glitches due to data intake problems.
Projects like this, mixing science with art, are challenging to conceptualize, said Ladd. "We're looking for projects that merge science and art. No one really knows how to do this well yet. It's a difficult mix. It calls for a philosophical paradigm shift for people who have been trained to think in one realm or the other."
The students' contributions serve as a springboard for future projects, said Ladd.
As for the three students who did the Cuningham project, all were changed by the experience.
Pan, a computer science major with ballet and martial arts training, has gained an appreciation of modern dance, she said—a ballet snob no more. Jessica Goldman, an English major and a classically trained dancer, has decided to add a minor in a scientific field. And Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr., a computer science major with no prior exposure to dance, is planning to create a dance-based computer game.