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The Trace: Searching for the Imprint Movement Leaves Behind

By Abigail Sebaly

Imagine a set of stairs whose steps have become grooved under the friction of thousands of footfalls. Or a knife blade that is scalloped and hollowed after countless years of kitchen use. Within both the knife’s abrasions and the steps’ erosion, traces of movement are imprinted on the materials themselves. These traces are a record of how bodies, and their movements, have interacted with these materials.

As we consider new ways of looking at performance objects in a museum setting, we cannot ignore the material traces and ways that physical movement has shaped them. During this past year’s immersion in the sets and costumes of the Walker’s Merce Cunningham Dance Company acquisition, I have noticed these traces of movement everywhere—on the surfaces of fabrics, sets, and props. Rather than fixating on makeup stains and fabric discolorations, we can look to the unique patterns of physical wear to decode how the dancers moved with these objects. How do the various rubs, pills, and scuffs indicate an imprint of the movements that were performed in them?

In the 1970 dance Tread, a collaboration with artist Bruce Nauman and composer Christian Wolff, Merce Cunningham selected short romper suits for the women to wear. In both sets of dancer Valda Setterfield’s costume, there is a similar concentration of pilling in the back and seat area. Cunningham’s Tread choreography provides an explanation for this unique kind of wear; in the beginning of the dance, Setterfield, along with other dancers, moved around on the floor with seated scooting movements. Her costume is worn and textured in a way that corroborates this movement. In the same dance, Meg Harper’s costume reflects a distinct pattern of wear on the front chest, which is indicative of the partnered lifts that she did in the piece.

Among the costumes that Cunningham himself wore, his pants and shirt for an early solo Root of an Unfocus (1944) also show distinct traces of movement. The fabric on the pants reflects a clear imprint of his seat and the backs of his legs as well as his knees, suggesting that the choreography’s floor work made contact with these points on his body. The distinctive outline of the dirt and wear give a clear sense of how he moved in that solo.

Similarly, from the dance Pictures, a 1984 collaboration with artist Mark Lancaster and composer David Behrman, the elbow area of Cunningham’s leotard top is thinned and bubbled, suggesting the outline of the elbow joint and the numerous bends it executed in that garment.

The point of these examples is to remind us of an enlivened way of seeing these sets and costumes. A costume’s snags and imperfections can easily be overlooked as mere wear and tear, but they can also offer us a closer, more accurate sense of the movement than any verbal description or even photograph could. These physical traces are evidence of the relationship between shape, weight, time, and repetition.

Although the Cunningham Collection provides a wide variety of examples from which to site, the idea of the movement trace can be tracked wherever moving bodies are involved. In another recent Walker event, during Minouk Lim’s FireCliff 3 performance collaboration with choreographer Emily Johnson, there was no opportunity to scrutinize for costume pills or scuffs at close range. Indeed, the work was so new that there wouldn’t have been time for these long-term traces of movement to build up. But the performers’ movements were still temporarily embedded in the surfaces captured by an infrared camera. At one point in the darkened performance space, one of Johnson’s dancers rapidly rubbed circles in the carpet. Even after the dancer then moved on to other sequences, the glowing circles of heat temporarily remained, courtesy of the infrared’s gaze. These traces were uniquely imprinted by the bodies that created them and preserved, at least temporarily, by the materials they had been in contact with.

While thinking through this idea of the trace of movement, I also came across Bosnian-born artist’s Bojan Šarčević’s work, Favorite Clothes Worn While S/He Worked (2000). For this piece, Šarčević asked working-class laborers to set aside their uniforms and instead perform their jobs in their finer nonwork clothes for two weeks. The used clothes, with all their remnants of work and wear, were then displayed in a gallery setting. While a commentary on politics and labor may have been one of the project’s aims, writer Martin Herbert also observes, “These works are rooted in the material trace as suggestive origin … [They] prompt viewers to build outward—into a hemisphere of delimited signification.” The workers’ clothing is meant to be viewed with an attention to how it came to be marked up. The material traces of labor and movement give the clothes an explicit rootedness to the bodies that actually wore them, a connection that we have also found with the Cunningham costumes.

While I have described a process of closely examining performance objects in order to study their traces of movement, I do not mean to imply that every scuff or scratch is the product of repeated movement that can be tied to a specific choreographic gesture. Indeed, the costumes that Jasper Johns realized for Cunningham’s 1968 dance RainForest offer a counter to this idea. If we look at the RainForest costumes, where Johns intentionally ripped and shredded the flesh-colored garments, distress was intentionally applied to the fabric, preempting the wear that would eventually occur to these costumes over time. The traces were deliberately produced at the outset, as opposed to emerging as a byproduct of movement and use. The story behind a particular trace may not always lead to a logical insight about the way the material was used in performance.

Nonetheless, we are constantly making new movement traces in our everyday lives, physical footprints of our own actions and movements. These traces are such an ordinary part of our existence that we may overlook them in both life and art But the objects of performance will give us more if we ask more of them, even after they have been retired from their active use in performance. In terms of displaying these objects in a museum setting, the question is often raised: will these objects hold up to the scrutiny of the gallery context, particularly when viewers can peer, at close range, at features that were formerly concealed by distance, moving bodies, and stage lighting? Yes, the objects handle it. But our appreciation for how they have been used, and why they are considered objects of performance, will be enhanced by our awareness of the movement traces they contain.


Abigail Sebaly is Cunningham Research Fellow for the Walker’s new Merce Cunningham Acquisition and the former director of special projects for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

A pair of dance shoes from the Merce Cunningham collection

Photo: Gene Pittman

Abigail Sebaly sorts through costumes from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Photo: Gene Pittman

Merce Cunningham, Root of an Unfocus, 1944

Photo: Barbara Morgan

Costume from Merce Cunningham’s Root of an Unfocus, 1944

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Merce Cunningham’s Tread, 1970, still from the 1972 film Tread, by Richard Leacock with Sandy D’Annunzio

Bojan Šarčević, Favorite Clothes Worn While S/He Worked, 2000

A costume from RainForest, 1968

Photo: Abigail Sebaly