For the best of the Merce Cunningham style, go to the source

Most of the new choreography one runs across in the normal course of dance-going has probably been modeled after Merce Cunningham. Chances are, too, that the best of it is Cunningham-inspired and that the best dancers have been Cunningham-trained at his school in New York.

There is, however, only one Merce and only one Merce Cunningham Dance Company , and he and it are appearing at the New York City Center through March 28 (during April and early May they also perform in California, in Austin, Texas, and in Mexico City). That Cunningham is still the one and only was proven by his opening-night bill, which was notable not only for the beauty of its choreographic ideas and physical presentation, but also for its range of expression.

If one will accept the notion that dance moods have climactic counterparts, one can then equate ''Trails'' with a dry summer day (about 80 degrees F., I should think), ''Inlets'' with a shivering drizzle, and ''Roadrunners'' with mid-fall, when all the joggers in training are clogging the streets.

That's a fair amount of weather to take in, and Cunningham makes it all beautiful in one way or another.

The most conventionally beautiful is ''Trails,'' the one world premiere of the season. With a hushed montage of natural sound by John Cage, called ''Instances of Silence''; and blazing red decor by Mark Lancaster, ''Trails'' might seem to be a study in extreme oppositions. The choreography, however, is temperate and finds Cunningham in his most lyrical disposition.

One is immediately struck by the spaciousness of ''Trails.'' Although composed for 10 dancers, Cunningham rarely deploys their energy all at once. Instead, he sprinkles the stage with only a few dancers at a time, and they maintain a comfortable distance from each other. Their movement is very lateral, ample and stretched; their rhythms at a steady, even pulse. ''Trails'' might take place in a meadow, where it is possible to be alone and together at the same time.

But even meadows have shadowy niches. There's a moment in ''Trails'' when what appears to be a chance look between two dancers introduces a new tone of tension, further elaborated in a duet. The latter portion of the dance slowly returns ''Trails'' to an even keel. It ends with the lone remaining couple blithely running off stage, perhaps in search of new trails. But that moment of slight intake of breath, when suddenly a whiff of the unfamiliar fills the air, fills the dance. It gives ''Trails'' a particular slant, and one that is true to life.

The other two dances, while not about life exactly, are more obviously about something specific. ''Inlets'' takes place behind a scrim; Cage's score of the same title evokes sounds of water and foghorns. The dancers appear somnambulant at times; at other times, they scurry like mice, secretly going about their business while the rest of the world sleeps. ''Inlets'' is about waiting, about marking time.

''Inlets'' is not amusing. ''Roadrunners'' is a very amusing satire on the country's passion for keeping in shape. Its point is that athleticism is just a new way of expressing America's old love affair with gadgets and gear. Just how Cunningham captures the essence of gadgetry in dance form is the crux of ''Roadrunners,'' but once seen you'll not be able to pass those joggers without a knowing twinkle in your eye.

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