Sunday, December 14, 2014

Cunningham and the skater's spine

This is my initial post concerning the relationship of Cunningham dance technique and working with edges on circles. Merce Cunningham developed his technique over much of his life, particularly from the 1940's to his death in 2009. A brief explanation of some of his later work can be found here. This post concerns the spine.

Cunningham emphasized the use of the spine. In technique class there are exercises that seek to employ every possible articulation of the back. Class begins with bounces of the spine forward and to the side. Others combine twists of the spine and curves to the side, as well as arches to the back, or to the back with a twist to the side. I had long thought that the basic exercises covered every possible position of the back. But I have seen more extreme twists in the performance repertory. In addition, I have discovered uses of the spine in skating that is distinct from Cunningham technique. But Cunningham provides an excellent foundation for learning to use the spine with figure eights.

The basic position for a forward outside circle eight involves a twist of the spine. On the left outside edge, the left shoulder leads so that the spine is twists from upper left down to lower right. The shoulders are lined up front to back, with left shoulder forward, and the right hip trails the standing leg. The left hip is up directly over the proximal phlange of the small toe of the left foot, thus on the left edge. The upper spine can actually arch over the outside edge. This arch can be found in Cunningham technique, but I have not encountered it with the exact twist used in the forward circle eight. Thus there is something for Cunningham to teach skaters, and something for figure eights to introduce to Cunningham. For right outside edge, just reverse each description.

On the left front inside edge, the weight is over the proximal phlange of big toe. Now, the right shoulder leads, so that the spine twists up to the right and down to the left. The left shoulder thus trails. The right hip is up, and trails the left hip slightly. A slight arch of the upper spine combines with the twist to the right. 

On the left back outside edge, the weight is on the small toe, but slightly further back than when moving forward: it is on the back side, or leading edge, of the rocker.  The spine now is twisted up to the left. Weight is firmly on the left hip directly over the edge under the small toe, with the right hip up. This involves the left quadratus lumborum and the obliques.

On the back left inside edge, the weight is on the ball of the big toe, and again slightly further back than when moving forward, on the leading (back) edge of the rocker. The spine is twisted up to the right. Weight is on the left hip over the edge under the big toe, with again a slight arch of the spine. The free hip is up, barely leading in the direction of travel (back).

Cunningham technique helps here because the curvature and twists of the spine are extensions of exercises from basic technique. The twists are held longer than is typical in technique class, although a still position in repertoire could certainly be held for long periods. But an edge can be held for very long time periods, and then alternated with the opposite leg in basic forward circle eights. The muscles that hold these positions can thus be strengthened. This will become particularly important with turns, where the obliques really must fire as a check, both going into the turn and going out of it.

Cunningham is known for combining complicated movements. The combination of curvature of the spine in a twist, along with a lift of the free hip, and an arch in the upper spine, is such a combination. Thus it can be practices as a technique off the ice, and then translated to the ice. An off-ice edge platform could also be used to do this, though it is not essential.

The ability to find the right position is a necessary precedent to the transition of positions though the variety of turns and moves in skating. These include 3-turns, brackets, counters, rockers, changes of edges, and loops. Finally, this description connects to inward rotation and outward rotation of the free leg at the hip; these rotations connect to lifting the free hip up. I will deal with these transitions and rotations in separate posts.

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