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The Three Amigos

With contributions from longtime associates John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham wrings emotion from abstraction.

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Merce Cunningham's new Interscape, recently given its first New York showing at City Center, united the choreographer's talents with those of old confederates -- the late John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg. Cage's score, One8, from 1991, is predictably fascinating and inscrutable. It calls for a cellist to inject phrases of sound -- some like fragments of conventional music, others squawks and groans -- into a prevailing silence that itself becomes vibrantly alive.

Rauschenberg has created a pictorial fantasia with a pair of drop curtains and complementary stenciling on the dancers' unitards, so that, as in Summerspace, which he designed for Cunningham in 1958, the moving figures extend the flat, scenic element into a sculptural dimension. The front curtain for Interscape, executed in black and white, is a medley of images, including a colonnaded house, a ramshackle one, trees, globes, a horse in armor (perhaps from a carousel), the torso of a dreaming woman, and a giant flower. Lighting transforms the front curtain from opaque to translucent, briefly revealing the dancers at work, as if in rehearsal. It then rises to show an identical backdrop, now stained with the colors of archaic art: coppers and golds, turquoises and deep blues, flashes of vermilion.

Into this rich, sophisticated setting Cunningham injects movement that's equally enigmatic, fertile, and compelling. The fourteen dancers look like a whole world as they come and go, sometimes like small flocks of migratory birds, more often settling into duos and trios that explore a particular movement theme -- or a spatial one, such as the relationship of bodies that keep a good distance between them. A gorgeous duet for Lisa Boudreau (a piquant glamour girl) and Cédric Andrieux (raw-faced, big-boned, and straightforward to the point of bluntness) explores the motif of bodies lying athwart each other and that of falling, with blind trust, into a partner's arms. These moves have a terrific emotional impact, despite the fact that Cunningham adamantly eschews the theatrical devices of narrative and character. For me, the dance conjured up images of the juggling, balancing acts, clowning, and magic tricks performed by bands of itinerant entertainers on fairgrounds in Europe, long ago. Cunningham's roots run deep.

The City Center run also featured the world premiere of Way Station, which I couldn't work up much enthusiasm for. It's stymied by the presence of five enormous paper-pulp constructions by Charles Long, a sculptor Cunningham took a fancy to perhaps without adequately considering that his instinct for rendering space (and time) as fluid, not fixed, is an essential part of his genius. Long's creations -- which might be fanciful sea creatures conceived by Giacometti but executed in Easter-egg pastels -- convert the stage space into several static areas, each of which declares, This is here and, damn it, nowhere else. James Hall's costumes only worsen the situation with their pseudo-sexy cutouts, their native-peoples motifs, and their refusal to move with their wearers' bodies.

Accompanied by a Takehisa Kosugi score, Cunningham's choreography seems equally balked. The dancers shelter a lot under the spindly structures, undulating aimlessly. Otherwise they're given to angular movements that contradict the body's natural inclinations. Derry Swan performs a solo of impossible postures, in which she acquits herself with aplomb, but which leaves the spectator's mind and muscles tensed to the point of spasm. Interestingly, couples are more stable here than is customary with Cunningham, who is far more persuasive when he operates in the realm of mutability.

Risa Steinberg, once a luminous member of José Limón's company, has been touring widely since 1986 with A Celebration of Dance, a solo program encompassing nearly a century's worth of choreography. Recently, she brought her show to the Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church, where the program ranged from works by the radical Isadora Duncan and the pioneering Doris Humphrey through accomplished midcentury figures (Limón, Eleanor King, Anna Sokolow) to current practitioners such as Mark Morris and Ann Carlson.

As Steinberg's mentor the solo dancer Annabelle Gamson has pointed out, it takes a gigantic presence to sustain a concert on one's own. Steinberg doesn't have that charismatic force. What she does offer is finely honed technique, intelligence, integrity, and delicate sensitivity. She is a quiet dancer who gives the satisfaction of seeing something purely done, not one of those avid, reach-exceeding-grasp performers who may provide a greater thrill.

Steinberg was at her most eloquent in Humphrey's Two Ecstatic Themes, a primer of modern-dance concepts exquisite in its simplicity, and in the abstract portraits of intense emotion provided by Eleanor King (rage) and Anna Sokolow (grief). The latter two served as a reminder that Steinberg is inherently as much a dramatic dancer as she is a lyrical one. She was at her freshest in Mark Morris's 1983 Bijoux, a delicious compendium of fragments suggesting a girl, all pretty in pink, ardent, awkward, and amusing, at her first dance. Other works, by Wally Cardona and Colin Connor, are not rewarding enough to justify their inclusion on the program. A new piece, Too Beautiful a Day, created for Steinberg by Carlson, supposes that Steinberg is as effective talking as she is moving, which isn't the case.

The program was narrated by the British-born actor-dancer Valda Setterfield, whose cool elegance provided a useful contrast to the earnest earthiness typical of American modern dance. The commentary -- admittedly helpful to the spectator innocent of dance history and necessary to allow Steinberg some breathing space -- threatened to turn what should have been an aesthetic event into an educational one. But Setterfield's delivery was marvelous, in tone, in timing, and even as background when, between her remarks, she sat on the sidelines in the role of sympathetic, thoughtful viewer -- the dancer's ideal audience.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company
Interscape, Way Station.
City Center.
Risa Steinberg
"A Celebration of Dance."
Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church.


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