Development of The Tutorial Guide To DanceForms

In the late eighties and nineties, the renowned American choreographer Merce Cunningham was a major inspiration in the development of Credo’s software program DanceForms (originally Life Forms). The development team included leader Tom Calvert, Professor Emeritus in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT), Simon Fraser University, Vancouver and Thecla Schiphorst, now Associate Director and Associate Professor of SIAT.

Merce Cunningham and some dancers from his dance company inspired and challenged Janet Randell to find an alternative way of choreographing and working with dance by using the software, following a change in her circumstances and mobility in 1999. Randell became fascinated by the fusion of art and technology in DanceForms, where human movement and dance can be created and recorded digitally on a computer.

Tom Calvert subsequently invited Janet Randell to create The Tutorial Guide to DanceForms, given her background in dance and experience in digital choreography. Merce Cunningham and David Vaughan (archivist to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company) encouraged Randell as she began to use DanceForms to apply her choreographic skills and subsequently in the course of her development of the Guide. Her aim was to make digital dance more accessible to dancers and choreographers.

From Animation to Live Dance

The Guide is based on Randell’s experimental approach to digital animation and choreography. Through a progressive series of video tutorials with explanatory animations, still shots, voice-overs and illustrated PDFs, Randell encourages the user to create digital choreography and animated movement sequences using DanceForms. Starting from the basics, the tutorials take the user through the main functions, controls and menus, supported by confidence building tasks and exercises. As Randell developed the Guide, her aim was twofold: to inspire the user firstly to understand the principles of animating movement using DanceForms, and secondly to apply the program as a launch pad for experimenting in new ways of creating live movement.

The tutorials demonstrate how to create animated poses, spatial patterns and sequences, with their interpretation into live dance and performance. There are dances visualizing the planes of motion in animation. The Guide includes Randell’s Dancing Forms for Eight, a complete dance animation, choreographed in fourteen short sections for eight dance figures, set to the music of Pachelbel’s Canon in D. The animated digitized sequence for each scene broken is down into the parts for eight individual dancers. Dancers can learn the digital choreographic notation created in DanceForms using a personal computer or device, with the option of developing the theme and movement in live dance. There are also creative improvisations, and choreographic studies for digital and live dance, which are set out side-by-side in demonstration videos.

Adage section from Dancing Forms For Eight – Janet Randell © Cedar Dance Animations Limited

Janet Randell © Cedar Dance Animations Limited 2019


The tutorials include a variety of live performances and variations developed by groups of dancers including company members, young ballet and modern dance students and a Dance For All Group.
One set of variations called Percussive Bytes using percussion music, consists of a series of improvised live sequences based on a selection of digital poses.

Animated and Live Mirror Dance For Three – Janet Randell © Cedar Dance Animations Limited

Another live performance variation, Dance by Chance, features the concept of chance inspired by Merce Cunningham’s renowned ‘chance’ approach to choreography. Here, individual animated poses were arranged randomly, and the dancers were then challenged to create live sequences using these poses in a variety of combinations. Lively gamelan percussion replaced the more serene baroque music of Pachelbel’s Canon in D. At later rehearsals, Randell arranged new spatial structures and patterns for each dancer, including solo and group interactions.

Randell writes:

An unexpected bonus when experimenting with DanceForms is the delight of discovering novel, sometimes surprising movement sequences that can be generated by the computer as it processes movements between the static poses called keyframes. Such computer generated poses can be used to develop imaginative and unanticipated movements, not necessarily bound by any structured rhythm. I think of these surprising sequences as intriguing chance occurrences, because they highlight hidden possibilities that can explored in live movement. These chance revelations are what continued to fascinate Merce Cunningham (See Dance and the Computer – Merce Cunningham).

Dance By Chance Live, The Place, London                                         Dance By Chance 
Janet Randell © Cedar Dance Animations Limited

The translation from animated to live dance can pose challenges for the human body. One tutorial in the Guide follows the choreographic process and development of Dancing Forms for Eight, from animated dance to rehearsals with live dancers, culminating in experimental live performances. Here, life and expression has been breathed into the movement and ethos of a dance first created on the computer.

Professor Tom Calvert has posed the question: “Can the soul of a dance be animated? Can the effort of a movement be computerized?” 1

Randell continues:

I believe that with practice on the part of the digital choreographer, it is possible to instil life into the ‘soul’ of a dance created using DanceForms. The resulting digitized movement can look as fluid as live dance rather than stilted and mechanical. However, when DanceForms is used as a digital notepad to capture quickly the essence of a dance, the sketched movement sequences do not necessarily show the intended fine detail or nuance in the expression. In my experience, a choreographer can introduce these roughed out animated sequences with music to the dancers, for preliminary individual study on their computers. Then both the choreographer and dancers can work together in a live rehearsal situation to develop the finer detail of the dance. This way of working with DanceForms and interacting directly with dancers to interpret the music, is an effective way of being able to breathe soul and imagination into the animated sketches.

For me, the way a live dancer moves, lies at the heart of dance, which is where the soul of dance lies. As Tom Calvert wrote: “…we must always remember that dancing is for people.”2

Live and Digital Etudes for One – Janet Randell © Cedar Dance Animations Limited

There is a delicate balancing act between art and technology in digital choreography. Dancing with feeling is innate in humans: a dancer is naturally expressive in movement, whereas computer generated dance that is sketched quickly may appear more mechanical. I make the comparison between the live flowing performance of a piece of music and the interpretation of the same piece played as a midi music file, which can sound more artificial.

There can be a close connection between dance and music (whether digital or live), especially in performance. There are various ways this can be achieved. One method is for a piece of music to be played expressively with rhythmic freedom, so that the adjustment of a strict tempo enables freedom of expression for the interpretation of movement to the music. In musical terms, this is called ‘rubato’ ³, where rhythm can be adjusted, by slightly slowing down or speeding up the tempo. 

In instances when music and dance are composed and choreographed separately, only coming together in performance, they can still share a common expressive structure, as demonstrated in some of Merce Cunningham’s dances, performed to music by John Cage.

There is indeed a symbiotic relationship between music and movement where the live interpretation of a musical phrase in dance involves depth of expressive freedom, range of feeling and timing. This way of moving can be captured in animation by using more advanced keyframing techniques, where it is certainly possible to convey the feeling and sensibility of a live dancer through more complex methods of notating and animating movement. For example, I used rubato in a short detailed animated dance sequence to music by Chopin, and handed it over to dancers to see whether they were able to study and learn it on a computer then perform the dance, just as a professional musician might learn a piece of music from a score and interpret the phrasing of the music with expression and feeling. The dancers relished the challenge and translated my animation Etudes into a near perfect performance.

Etudes for One Live and Animated – Janet Randell © Cedar Dance Animations Limited

DanceForms can be used as a philosophical tool, helping to explore and demonstrate to dancers the processes involved in the choreographic development of a digital dance composition. For instance, how are the concepts of colour, shape, form, movement, and rhythm, as demonstrated in the Guide, perceived and used by choreographers and dancers, including those with learning difficulties and disabilities? Sometimes the process is purely intuitive.

For example, when working with one group of students with learning disabilities, I noticed that they focussed initially on the costume colour of the dance figures and the colour options for the stage floor and background, as shown in the Guide. From these flowed ideas for creating a dance.

Janet Randell © Cedar Dance Animations Limited


1 T Schiphorst, Merce Cunningham: Making Dances with the Computer, in David Vaughan (Ed), Merce Cunningham: Creative Elements, Choreography and Dance: An international journal, Volume 4, Part 3, New York, Routledge, 2013, p81, Note 10: T W Calvert, J Landis and J Chapman (1979), “Notation of Dance with Computer Assistance”, New Directions in Dance, Pergamon Press, Toronto, p175
2 T Schiphorst, Merce Cunningham: Creative Elements, Choreography and Dance: An international journal, Volume 4, Part 3, p81, Note 10
Three inspiring examples where live dance is used with ‘rubato’ or feeling and musicality are: the performance of the Odette dance solo to the haunting melody from Act 1 of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, the “Pas de deux” performed to the violin with harp accompaniment from Act 2 and much of Appalachian Spring danced to Aaron Copland’s Orchestral suite. The classical choreography of Ivanov and Petipa et al, and the modern dance choreography by Martha Graham, all follow the expressive music with feeling and artistry. One early example of rubato movement effect in filmic animation, can be found in one of the dance sequences in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Disney, 1937), where Snow White performs a country dance with some of the dwarfs with the gracefulness and feeling of a live dancer.

The Fusion of Digital Technology & Dance