Dancing with ghosts

Merce Cunningham's "Biped" is a dramatic feat of computerized choreography.

Published April 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In the late '70s, when I first saw the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, the dances ("Squaregame," "Sounddance," "Travelogue," "Roadrunners") were so unexpected and violently alive, and the dancers so startled by their own conviction, that when the curtain came down I started to cry. In recent years, Cunningham's pieces have been strikingly beautiful, surprisingly sexy and gorgeously intricate, but they don't play with time in quite the way they once did. They used to sweep everything into the moment. In the last few years, they've become elegiac, settling us gently on the outside to watch.

This diminished immediacy is due, in part, to the dancers. Twenty years ago, the troupe comprised eight or so eccentric modern dancers presided over by an idiosyncratic maestro who appeared every night in some corner of the stage. Now, at 80, Cunningham keeps to the wings, and the 15 or so ballet-trained dancers excel in flexibility and speed more than anything else. During the stark, slow 1959 classic "Rune," now in the repertory, they don't know what to do with their hyper-flexibility. When they extend their limbs in high, wide arcs and tilts, it doesn't look exciting, just easy.

The change in the performers reflects an evolution in the choreography. Devised on the computer, Cunningham's movement has grown quicker over the last 10 years, more liquid and more insect-like, and less recognizably human in scale and form. But with "Biped," the stunning new work that premiered this weekend at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, the remoteness is not just a byproduct of the choreographer's choices and the dancers' delivery, but lies right at the heart of the dance. "Biped" presents a bird's-eye view of human motion and time.

Computer designers Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser have sandwiched the dancers between two transparent scrims. On the front screen, the motion of three dancers has been abstracted from their bodies and transmuted into swirls and bars of color, which coalesce as enormous, spirally skeletons. The energy-ghosts scamper over the heads of the real dancers, regroup as white dots, wash across the scrim like a flutter of enormous wings and disappear. For a backdrop, white bands stream from floor to far-off ceiling. With infinity above them and dissolving silhouettes before them, the dancers appear small and fragile. Their boneless style, which was irritating earlier in the evening, finally works well.

Normally, a Cunningham dance depends on the clear distinctions dancers make between still solidity and flickering ephemerality, the upright and the off-kilter, deep intention and creature-like impulse -- ultimately, between the body and its motion. Replacing deliberate progression and pre-set music with added emphasis on the dramas and conflicts of the movement itself, Cunningham puts an extra premium on the dancers' performance. The exceptional Maydelle Fason is so well-rooted that she amplifies the space around her, and crisply slices through it. Newcomer Koji Minato's square torso and animal certainty are a powerful counterpoint to his elongated gestures.

But the drama in "Biped" has less to do with the dancers themselves than with what takes place between them, the moving decor and Gavin Bryars' score. The slow arc of the music vibrates up from the pit, full of foreboding. Torsos bend, tilt and swerve while legs take an opposite course, frittering, scattering and leaping across the enormous plane of the Zellerbach Hall stage. On the mournful landscape of sound, the flickering dance seems furtive and desperate, and dissolution is imminent.

Cunningham was a visual artists' choreographer before the dance world embraced him, and he often uses space as a metaphor for time. In this sad, monumental work, the tiny present swims in a future as vast as a pitch-black sea.

By Apollinaire Scherr

Apollinaire Scherr is an arts writer living in the Bay Area.

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