Merce Cunningham and How Can Robots Can Help You Dance, at SCI-Arc

Holley Farmer and digital dancer share the stage
Holley Farmer and digital dancer share the stage
Priyank Mehta, Chung Ming Lam/Courtesy of SCI-Arc

It was not a normal Thursday night lecture in Devyn Weiser's class, "Robotic Confections and Confabulations," at the Southern California Institute of Architecture or SCI-Arc last week. Fifty or so students, professors and guests gathered to hear Holley Farmer, one of the standout performers formerly with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

Cunningham (1919-2009) changed the art of dance by boiling it down to what he considered its essence -- pure movement in space and time. Nothing more, nor less. Dance didn't have to match music, scenic design, or story telling, he believed. Cunningham, in collaboration with another avant-gardist, composer John Cage, ripped apart the elements of live theater, one from the other. They do exist together in a Cunningham dance -- there is music and costumes and sets, often designed by famous artists -- but they did not "need" one another, Cunningham believed.

In addition to this "perfect model of collaboration," as Farmer called it, Cunningham also famously "collaborated" with machines, using a computer program in his quest to find an ever-new creative movement language for his dancers. And that, too, is what Farmer was here to talk about with the students, who have six state-of-the-art robots to play with in the college's new laboratory. How will you collaborate with machines?

Merce Cunningham and How Can Robots Can Help You Dance, at SCI-Arc
Priyank Mehta, Chung Ming Lam/Courtesy of SCI-Arc

"My image for him is of the Wizard of Oz. He was behind the curtain," Farmer said of Cunningham. "His use of computers changed the way we looked at dance."

Farmer explained how Cunningham used chance principles to make the most fundamental decisions in his dances. Instead of choosing what step came next, or which dancer to use or even how many dancers were onstage, he tossed coins, or used the I Ching to help him decide. These methods helped him to "free his imagination from its cliches," she said.

Tall, lean and strikingly graceful, Farmer demonstrated how individual dance phrases were painstakingly put together. She showed several video segments from live performances, including a gorgeous duet she did with Daniel Squire (pictured above).

Graduate student Joseph Brown, 25, found Farmer's talk inspiring. "I think the idea of chance is something that is, in a way, underused in architecture. A lot of the foundation of the whole discipline is based on something previous...We're trying to break through that mentality."

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