By JULIE BLOOM
Throughout his life Merce Cunningham came up with new ways to blend art and technology. He changed the way we think about space and time onstage, he explored dance on film before just about anyone else, and long before James Cameron and Hollywood made motion-capture cool, he was using three-dimensional computer animation to choreograph. Now, three years after his death in 2009, Cunningham is again at the vanguard. On Friday the Aperture Foundation is to introduce its first interactive application for the iPad, “Merce Cunningham: 65 Years.”
The app, which costs $14.99 at the iTunes App Store, is both a comprehensive primary source and a multimedia buffet — what its creators see as a model for how performing artists can share their art through technology. It expands on a 1997 Aperture venture, “Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years,” a book by the Cunningham archivist David Vaughan chronicling Cunningham’s life and career through 1994, when he was 75. Known as the Cunningham bible, the book is an exhaustive account meticulously assembled by Mr. Vaughan, whose work also forms the basis of the app.
From 1942 to 2009 Cunningham created at least one new work, often more, nearly every year: 185 dances as well as more than 800 events featuring excerpts from different pieces. Mr. Vaughan, 88, was along for much of the ride. From when he began working with Cunningham in 1959 he documented every program and performance on notecards, and he interviewed Cunningham extensively.
He also collected material on venues, master classes and workshops, and tracked exhibitions and film and video collaborations. Most of the archives are now housed in the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, but much of the material is in the app, along with the digitized version of Mr. Vaughan’s book.
Like the book, the app is basically organized chronologically. It includes more than 200 photographs from Cunningham’s childhood through the “Legacy” tour, the final performances of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 2011, but it is the multimedia dimension that is likely to be of most interest to dance lovers. There are some 40 short video dance clips with sound selected by Mr. Vaughan and Trevor Carlson, a trustee of the Merce Cunningham Trust. More than 150 dancers were members of the company in the span of 60 years, and they are almost all featured.
The collection includes rare video discovered only while the app was being assembled, like a clip of Cunningham dancing with Martha Graham in 1940. The app also includes video of interviews with Cunningham; excerpts from the process series “Mondays with Merce”; material salvaged from Cunningham’s own computer, with the motion-capture technology programs he used to choreograph; and his journal entries and drawings of birds.
Sitting in the offices of the Cunningham Trust at City Center recently, Mr. Vaughan handled an iPad carefully as he viewed the completed app for the first time. “It’s even more wonderful than I thought,” he said.
He leaned in as he looked at one of the drawings.
“I like this one, the blue,” he said. “They’re imaginary animals really. They came out of Merce’s extraordinary imagination.” He liked including them, he said, because: “Then you see something of Merce the man. Of course you can never convey what Merce was like to be with. He loved to eat and drink red wine, and he loved to gossip, and he was always great fun to be around.”
He added: “The work scares a lot of people, because they don’t understand it. Merce never wanted them to worry about that, he just wanted them to look at it, and this is a way of looking at it.”
Melissa Harris, the editor in chief of Aperture, which mostly publishes material on photography, edited the book and came up with the idea for the app shortly after Cunningham’s death. She said she was inspired in part by an online project she had seen on T. S. Eliot’s “Wasteland,” which along with contextual notes included a video performance of the poem by the actress Fiona Shaw. The Cunningham app, on a different order of magnitude, took about a dozen people, $60,000 and two years to put together. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation provided $45,000; additional support came from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.
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