In today’s hype around the fascinating capabilities of AI, people tend to be oblivious to the fact that artists have been exploring the creativity of computers and interest in automated processes in art since the 1960ies. Early experiments in computer art and generative art have brought machines to draw quite successfully – consider for example the algorithmic paintings of Vera Molnar or the computer drawings of Frieder Nake – or to make music or write poetry (Some of the earliest experiments in these fields were conducted at E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), which was an organization founded by engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldauer and artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman to bring these to fields together for experimentation). So, it seems natural, that artists also explored how computational technology could be implemented in the creative field of dance and choreography. The Brazilian Artist Analivia Cordeiro was a pioneer in this field. Her work M3x3 from 1973 is a computer-based video-dance created to be watched on a television screen. This work has received the title of being the “first video artwork conducted in Brazil” (Mariola V. Alvarez, “Machine Bodies: Performing Abstraction and Brazilian Art”, Arts, 2020) and was therefore – and as we will see also for other reasons – “a monumental artistic accomplishment.” (Edward Shanken, “Coding Dance and Dancing Code: Analivia Cordeiro’s M3X3”) Let’s explore why this work was and is so important until today.
M3x3 – a video-computer dance done in 1973
In the video, nine dancers in black and white costumes perform a set of movements on a grid of nine fields. There is a bird’s eye and a frontal view camera that captures the repetitive gestures and a pounding metal sound that gives the rhythm. What is not visible to the beholders eye, is that the choreography for this abstract dance is designed by a computer, implemented by Cordeiro in the Fortran IV programming language (Website of the artist https://www.analivia.com.br/computer-dance-3/). For the translation between body and computer language to work, Cordeiro divided the body into six entities (two arms, two legs, torso and head), so that for each dance figure, the position of these six parts could be defined by the computer. The movement and therefore the legitimacy to call this a dance is introduced in the transition between the set figures and is not defined by the computer and free to interpret by the dancers. In this sense, M3x3 is a collaboration of the input by the artist, instructions by the computer and implementation by the dancers.
What is exemplary of this work, it that Cordeiro manages to bring abstraction to dance, to deconstruct an artform that before could only be transported through the human body. She does that not only by breaking down the movement into small digits, but also by inscribing the body of the dancers into the black and white grid with the help of the minimalistic costume design, almost as to break the human body down into binary code. The faces of the dancers are covered in black paint so as to hide expression or personality, rendering the body schematic (Mariola V. Alvarez, “Machine Bodies: Performing Abstraction and Brazilian Art”, Arts, 2020). Moreover, the element of live-ness, otherwise so crucial to the dance performance is taken away since this work is designed for the camera and only to be viewed as a recording on a TV screen. The video in this case is not a documentation of the work, but it is the work itself. All of these strategies render the body geometrical, computational so to say. Cordeiro specifically states Oskar Schlemmer and his triadic ballet as an inspiration for her work (Analivia Cordeiro, “From Body to Code”, exhibition at ZKM Karlsruhe, 28.1.-7.5.2023, https://zkm.de/de/ausstellung/2023/01/analivia-cordeiro-from-body-to-code). The Bauhaus artist started to work on geometrical costumes for dancers in 1913. Based on the three forms of the circle, the square and the triangle, these costumes were meant to hinder bodily movement and restrict dancers from the freedom of their bodily articulation, thus making the dance schematic and choppy. In this way, Schlemmer’s triadic ballet was a precursor to computational dance.
The Grammar of Dance
But how can a computer really understand dance? Or how can humans understand dance if there is no visual moving representation of it? As for music, there is a notation for dance, it is however far less widespread, uniform or historically consistent as notation for music. It appears to be far more complex to capture body movement in three-dimensional space than sound or speech. One of the most widely known dance notations of the 20th century was introduced by the Austro- Hungarian Choreographer Rudolf Laban in the late 1920ies. The goal of “Labanotation” as it was later named, was to be able to capture, record and read and therefore archive any human movement. The notation uses symbols to define the body part that is involved, direction and level of movement, duration and dynamic quality. Analivia Cordeiro was familiar with Laban’s work on notation and based on that, started to work on her own computer movement notation system Nota-Anna in 1983.** She elaborates on the importance of dance notation as follows:
"The need to find a way of writing movement is a very serious proposition. Can you imagine, we have thousands of years of human culture but there is not a way of writing movement? It is like a black hole. This is what I want to encourage. It goes beyond art into the survival of the human. Without movement we die. It is quite simple."
From notation to motion capture
Analivia Cordeiro, M3x3, 1973
Representation of inclinations with vector symbols and in Labanotation symbols as parallel and approximately parallel inclination categories.