Transmission in Motion

Seminar Blogs

“Dancing with Mathematics” – Anthony Nestel

Laura Karreman starts Chapter 2 “Dance as Knowledge” of her PhD dissertation titled The Motion Capture Imaginary: Digital Renderings of Dance Knowledge (2017) with the following: “A Striking feature of the contemporary field of dance practice and research is the way in which motion capture technologies are increasingly applied in the effort to analyze, interpret and preserve dance” (Karreman 2017, 55). And while she eloquently considers in this chapter motion capture technologies in terms of dance analysis, interpretation and preservation, my wish for this reflection is to explore the potentiality of digital technologies for the invention of new modes of dance. I will do so by alluding to Stamatia Portanova’s inquiry into choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham’s later choreographic oeuvre (Portanova 2013).

Owing to software such as LifeForms and DanceForms, Cunningham was confronted with a series of strange little figures that lacked muscles, bones, organs and “floated in a sort of vacuum space-time with no gravitational or chronological restrictions, stimulating and suggesting all sorts of unexpected and unimagined motions” (Portanova 2013, 114). These software are the products of purely mathematical algorithmic relations. The digital interface permitted Cunningham to think the unimaginable: gestures, movements, sequences of movements that seemed impossible to conceive, became, suddenly, thanks to these software, accessible, allowing Cunningham to think movement and choreography differently. The choreographer’s new thoughts that were engendered during his encounter(s) with the algorithms’ powers developed into problems for his dancers to discover novel manners of performing them.

In Cunningham “computerised softwares” (Portanova 2013, 116), following Portanova description’s of them, an atypical quality of the movements is introduced to Cunningham’s choreographic thinking: footwork takes center stage in the performance, and the movements of the upper body – especially the arms and hands – materialize as add-ons. Arm movements, as Portanova argues, are only added subsequently and without any specific connection to the dance, creating in Portanova’s words, “a complex polyrhythm in the dancers’ bodies, with legs and arms moving at their own respective velocity” (Portanova 2013, 116). Head and torso await a similar faith: the result is a complex idiosyncratic, artificial, unnatural journey. By detaching all the aforementioned elements of the dancers’ bodies into autonomous elements of an assemblage, Cunningham, by virtue of the aforementioned software, renders him and his dancers to become, in the words of Portanova, “softwareized” (Portanova 2013, 116). As Portanova explains: “it is the human body that goes toward the inorganic workings of the technical machine” (Portanova 2013, 116).

What Portanova points at is a fluctuation of what choreography is and can do: no longer conforming only to the choreographer and his dancers’ physical order – as in their acquired (habitual) trained bodies and minds – but a choreography that obeys a mathematical outside in which chance becomes a “rigorous procedure to destroy them [the choreographer and dancers’ trained bodies and minds] and obtain unforeseen results” (Portanova 2013, 117). Owing to the softwares, Cunningham developed a choreographic style that can be described as “anorganic” (Portanova 2013, 17). This style is concerned with how infinite mathematical combinations, embedded in the aforementioned softwares, can yield new stimuli and new potentials in order to realize, in Portanova’s terms,

“apparently impossible movements and idiosyncratic phrases that go against biological and anatomical possibilities, allowing the exploration and discovery of previously unknown capacities and the overcoming of past beliefs and ideas of both dancers and audience.” (Portanova 2013, 117)


  • Karreman, Laura. 2017. “The Motion Capture Imaginary: Digital Renderings of Dance Knowledge.” PhD diss., Ghent University.
  • Portanova, Stamatia. 2013. Moving Without a Body: Digital Philosophy and Choreographic Thoughts. Cambridge: MIT Press Ltd.

*Image credits: “Merce Cunningham (1919 – 2009)” by ho visto nina volare is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0