Born at the Right Time

Chance operations in the life and work of Anita Cheng

Chance operations have led Anita Cheng’s life inevitably toward a symbiosis of art and digital media. “I was born at the right time,” she said—born into the first generation of choreographers to grow up using a computer.

In Boulder, Colorado, Cheng learned programming on her father’s 8MB Classic Mac and played with a high school video camera; an iconoclastic piano teacher introduced her to John Cage and improvisation. Then, in college, she fell in love with dance and opted for an MFA at the University of Michigan. The timing was right. A brand new performing arts and technology program provided fertile ground for experimentation, and Cheng began to merge music, computers, and dance.

Cheng picked the right moment to arrive in New York too. In the early 1990s, the booming economy meant plenty of work in both technology and dance. For several years, she worked as a broadcast designer for Channel 13; her choreographic skill at pairing sound and motion, she found, gave her a distinct advantage as an animator. She also teaches on dance and technology, currently as an adjunct instructor at Hunter College. She performed with Elaine Shipman and Tran Thuc Hahn among others, and in 2000 she founded Anita Cheng Dance.

As an artist, digital and physical intertwine for Cheng. Her movement style, alert and linear, is shaped by more than physical preference. Clarity, she knows, partners well with her digital creations. Projects can be output as video, audio, CD, DVD, Web site, and/or performance; rigorous dances stem from tech-centric concepts like GPS positioning and frames of video in animation. As technology gets cheaper and more powerful, the creative possibilities expand too. More than a means, technology fascinates Cheng for its capacity to shift her perspective.

In 1994, in Cheng’s first project with Brazilian artist Ronaldo Kiel, her partner and artistic collaborator, five minutes of video strained their Macs to crashing point. Now the pair, who have shared a NYFA Artist’s Fellowship and received separate Fulbright grants, pull off feats like Meg Harper dancing in canon with her own life-sized image. Cheng still struggles with equipment envy, but says, “As an artist you need a pencil, Ronaldo says, and as a dancer you need your body. The scale and scope of things can be determined by budget, but I think you can say to yourself, your imagination doesn’t have to be.” She laughs irrepressibly. “And then you feel much better.”