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Ephemeral Live

Merce Cunningham slices and dices and makes a delicious stew of his repertoire; Garth Fagan's troupe of superheroes grow into their roles.

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The events Merce Cunningham calls Events are one-time-only concerts, the choreographer being a devotee of the ephemeral. These presentations, invented to accommodate to theatrically unconventional spaces -- arenas that have no front and the like -- collage passages from the dances that constitute Cunningham's more conventional repertory, along with new material, to form a seamless whole that offers, in Cunningham's words, "not so much an evening of dances as the experience of dance." The music that happens in tandem with the dancing is different at each Event and has nothing in common with it except a duration of 90 minutes. Neither choreographer nor dancers have heard it in advance. Any sets or costumes tied to the dances in their original form are ignored -- and replaced with the décor and the outfits du jour. Many a dance fan becomes frantic at Events: Was that Merce's solo from Signals? Was that actually Winterbranch? -- you know, the stuff going on downstage, while the leaning duet from what-was-it was off on the right, but in profile? I have never been able to see the point of such questioning, except as an anxiety-reliever for those unnerved by the unidentified and unexpected -- the very people Cunningham aims to rehabilitate.

The recent weeklong series of Events at the Joyce (Nos. 668 through 673, for the record; the 81-year-old MC, as he refers to himself, has been at this for a while) was arranged so that a chunk of material was subtracted and a chunk of new material added every night; if you attended opening night and closing night, you saw two programs without a phrase in common. I went opening night and had a gorgeous time. Meredith Monk, a primeval-style vocalist (and onetime iconoclastic choreographer), was the compelling guest artist for the music. Olafur Eliasson provided the décor, which featured a round mirror, about three feet in diameter, suspended a few feet off the stage. It caught the action that happened to travel through its line of reflection and, because of its capacity to turn convex and concave, skewed the relationships of near and far in the images it revealed. See, it counseled, the dance is simply what you happen to see and what you, according to your nature, make of it.

As for the choreography, short stretches were boring as hell -- partly because one's attention flags without the "artificial" stimulation of narrative, character, or emotion -- and the rest constituted a series of miracles. Overall, the movement seems as rarefied and elegant as that of classical dance, but more often than not the balances reveal themselves to be skewed and precarious, while incongruities such as folk-dance motifs, thudding falls, and people simply walking away from the action keep intruding. Again and again, formidable leg extensions rise and unfurl, ending in a superarched foot, the limb acting as pointer to some enormous if unspecified truth as the rest of the dancer's anatomy seems to fade into invisibility. Partners in an adagio pursue their solemn ritual despite the proximity of "foreign" bodies engaged in erratic high-speed pursuits. A glamour-girl blonde swivels shoulders and pelvis while the rest of her body remains aloof, in neutral. These elements, and myriad others, challenge the viewer to rethink and expand his ideas about dancing and about a wider universe in which dancing is only a speck.

The troupe came on like gangbusters on the opening night of Garth Fagan Dance's recent run at the Joyce -- so fierce, svelte, and clear, they looked like a tribe of superheroes. Aptly, Prelude, the display piece used as a curtain raiser, is based on classroom work. Fagan has evolved a striking fusion vocabulary, co-opting the long lines and poised balances of classical ballet along with its swift, light action in the thighs, the rippling fluency punctuated with angular thrusts of Afro-Caribbean dance and the sly, complex rhythms of jazz.

Over the years, this mix has grown increasingly rich and deft and the performers more and more able to bring it off as if it were not a contrived or mongrel tongue at all but rather a language refined over time to a state of harmonious purity. At one point, Natalie Rogers stood in profile, rose high on toe on one leg, the other curved behind her, straightened the elevated leg as she held the balance, then, with the calm of an angel who had all eternity in which to perform her wonders, tipped her torso over the standing leg until her head grazed its knee. On a ballet stage, this feat would be greeted by screams of approbation from the audience; in Fagan's world, it's business as usual. Similar phenomena are Norwood Pennewell's repeatedly bounding into the air with no visible preparation or effort, to suggest the fleetness and beauty of a deer in an unspoiled forest, and the ability of every dancer in this clan to ornament locomotion with quicksilver movements of the head or hands, as if merely to charge or soar through space with demonic energy and exquisite line were somehow not -- well, witty enough. Fagan-bred dancers put on an unforgettable show.

The choreographer's new creation for this season, Trips and Trysts, centers on company veterans Rogers and Pennewell. Vaguely about meeting and mating in the familiar social context of missed connections, it features a tour de force duet where the pair, clearly destined to be lovers, never once touch. While Fagan isolates these two special beings at times, making them appear to be the world's only inhabitants (which is, after all, how lovers feel), intermittently he introduces other couples, small clusters, and a vibrant crowd that he sets teetering on the edge of chaos. Sometimes the prevailing mood is elated, sometimes sensual, sometimes melancholic, sometimes -- most beautifully -- serene, with quiet phrases marked by the gentle act of folding, arm over torso, torso over lower body, a motif recalling the association, in Zen thought, of wholeness with repose.

This piece has the extra merit of revealing that the troupe's newest member -- Erin Barrett, born to dance -- is as striking as its longtime stars. Every movement she makes is physically full and charged with feeling; it also seems, uncannily, spontaneous. I could watch Barrett forever, doing anything. Once you lay eyes on her, even when she's operating on the outskirts of the action, you can barely see anyone else on the stage.


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