Digital Dance

For nine years Michael Cole starred as one of Merce Cunningham Dance Company's dancers. Now he's starring on stage and screen. Computer screen that is. The tall, gorgeous, dreadlocked dancer/choreographer could easily star on the silver screen too. Cole dances his work Command X/V, Versions 1, 2, and 3 during Arizona State University's Fall Dance Concerts beginning Thursday, November 19, and continuing through Saturday. Informed by his computer work at ASU's dance department, Command X/V both breaks and follows the traditions ingrained in him by his years in Cunningham technique.

Merce Cunningham, in case you don't know, is the now 79-year-old master of American modern and postmodern dance. His work, somehow simultaneously classic and avant-garde, is based on the chance operations he developed concurrently with his longtime partner, the late composer John Cage. If you saw his company perform in the Valley last April, you would have seen the stunning works he composed on LifeForms software, the system he's been making his choreography with for the last 10 years or so.

But you would not have seen Cole dancing. At 35, he left the company to get his Master of Fine Arts at ASU. This is not an unusual age for a male dancer to slow down; injuries aside, a 15-year dance career is comparable to a sports star's career. And not all dancers want to emulate the late Rudolph Nureyev, who danced, pathetically, far beyond his ability into his 50s. Some prefer to leave at their peak, before risking debilitating injuries that can cause lifelong pain.

But Cole found it more painful to watch his longtime home company from a seat in the audience last spring than he'd imagined. "The last time I danced with MCDC was only a couple of days before I came out to Arizona, at the Paris Opera Ballet in January." There Cole was, on the famous stage where serious dance began a couple of centuries ago, the same stage where Nureyev made his debut in the West after defecting from the Soviet Union. "Ironically, it was on my final night with the company that I took my first solo bow and received a bouquet of roses," he says with obvious emotion. That may have been an unusual honor in an ensemble like Cunningham's, but not for the Paris Opera Ballet stage where the premier dancers are formally made "toile" or Star.

Cole didn't see stars when he looked into his future. Being a member of MCDC was one of the greatest honors a dancer could have in this century. "But it's so demanding; you don't have an opportunity to prepare for what comes after." Forming his own company was not an option. "I was spoiled dancing with Merce. I got paid well and would feel guilty not to provide that for my dancers."

When he heard about ASU's program, he chose it over CalArt's. "They [ASU] had a focus on dance and technology. And since I'm continuing my choreographic work through computer animation, it made sense to come here." Getting a full scholarship and receiving a Jacob Javits Foundation scholarship (the second grad student at ASU ever to receive it) may have helped his decision.

Command X/V refers to the Mac commands to cut and paste, command-X and command-V, respectively. Versions 2 and 3 use chance methods, "cutting and pasting" to determine the order the original eight sections of the dance will appear both in time and in space. Each version lasts about five minutes and uses different costumes and different music--significantly, one is to Elvis Costello's The Bridge I Burned. Each is then cut and pasted into the program, which also features works by several other choreographic worthies.

One of them is Seattle artist Pat Graney. Her dances have been called intensely sexy by The New York Times and crisply athletic by The Village Voice. Graney received Choreography Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts for the past 11 years and a prestigious Guggenheim in 1995. She has also racked up six residencies at New England's temple of dance, Jacob's Pillow. During her two-week residency at ASU last August, she set a dance on seven of ASU's superb graduate dancers. Acclaimed for her "Keeping the Faith" project--it offers workshops and performance opportunities for incarcerated women--she returns to the Valley for outreach work at the Black Canyon School, a juvenile center for girls, and for this week's premiere of Mitzie's Dance.

If you've ever gone stargazing on a crisp Phoenix evening and couldn't see any stars because of our town's light pollution, you'll understand how that is an apt metaphor for the way we treat the star talents right in our midst. A Paul Taylor alumnus and director of his own company in New York for 10 years, Cliff Keuter has been a professor of dance at ASU for 10 years. Companies in countries from England to Australia dance his choreography. Just back from guest artist residencies in Hong Kong and Taipei, he's assigned his latest work, The Sound of Trees, to nine women dancers from his department. "They are women of the earth," he says, describing the piece. "I placed them [mentally at least] in a peasant landscape. They move with enormous vitality, speed, and extravagant motion."

Nicole Bradley and Jennifer Tsukayama also have dances on the program, as does Ann Ludwig, whose Address Permanently Fatal came out of her frustration with getting e-mail returned.

We've all experienced the frustration of working with computers, yet Cole remains committed to his marriage of dance and technology. "I'm using LifeForms to choreograph stand-alone videos that can be shown in galleries, and motion-capture work--that's when technicians place lights on the joints of dancers who are swathed in black, then film their movement to create a direct transfer of physical information to digital information for true-to-life animation. They use it in Hollywood a lot." Maybe Cole will yet make it to the big screen.

Command X/V, Versions 1, 2, and 3 is performed at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, November 19; 7:30 p.m. Friday, November 20; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, November 21; and 3 p.m. Sunday, November 22, at the University Dance Laboratory at Nelson Fine Arts Center, 10th Street and Mill in Tempe. 965-6447.


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