New York — For most of his career, Merce Cunningham has been trying to make dance reflect the fragmentation he sees in 20th-century life. After his disruption of the creative continuum by the use of chance procedures, his parceling out of movement among discrete body parts and multi-directional stage pathways, and his defocusing of the space by treating all areas of it the same, you'd think he'd tried everything. But he's come back to this theme again with ``Roaratorio,'' his new work premi`ered for the opening of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival. At first viewing I found ``Roaratorio'' pleasant but untrackable. The 16 dancers seem to fly across the stage and disappear before they make any impression on the retina.
What's competing with them is one of John Cage's most extravagant pots-and-pans sound collages. While Cage reads portions of ``Finnegans Wake,'' five Irish musicians intermittently play on drums, fiddle, flutes, and pipes, all overlaid with additional taped sounds -- music, laughter, and screams, sirens, bells, birds, babies, and babble. There seem to be never less than five distinct sounds blaring at once. Even though you try to hear the din as a single texture, it keeps dragging your attention away from the dancers.
So what I saw opening night was bits of disconnected dancing, within what felt like a much more rational choreographic structure. Unlike many Cunningham dances, ``Roaratorio'' has a theatrical beginning and ending -- the dancers bring on several high stools and place them at the side, move them around the back of the space during the dance, and take them all off just before the curtain falls. Within the boundaries of this device, however, the dance seems aimless, you lose track of sequence, entrances and exits, the shape of any given phrase or group pattern.
A lot of the dancing is very fast, like clog dancing. However, rather than striking into the ground with the step as cloggers do, these dancers seem to be trying to use their steps to keep them off the ground as much as possible. They pair off and clog together, making little games out of keeping ahead of their partners. Later the couples stroll back and forth and even do something like a waltz step, lively but quiet, near what turns out to be the end of the dance.
When I returned later in the week, the dance looked altogether different, though neither steps nor sequence had changed. Cage resplices the tape for each performance -- he and the live musicians may or may not have a fixed score. Now the dance took on a coherence I hadn't seen. For long sections of the fast step-dancing, they actually danced to the fiddle.
Due to Cunningham's insistence that dance and music be separate entities, you seldom see his dancers observing any but their own inner music. On the rare occasions when their phrase coincides with some real music -- I've only seen it once or twice in the past -- they relax into the happiest musical creatures on any stage.
Near the end of the dance, there's a familiar moment: Couples take positions evenly in the space facing the audience, and they do some fast steps together, quite didactically, like a class. (The same thing happened in ``Inlets,'' which began each Brooklyn Academy program, except that the mood was much calmer and slow.)
After this false ending, Cunningham and Catherine Kerr begin their strolling, waltzing duet and more small spurts of dancing occur before the real ending, which has the whole company standing facing the audience, and Karen Radford getting in a few more clogging steps, finally subsiding as they leave.
``Roaratario'' is a great outburst of joyous dancing that has an irresistible momentum. As it slowly winds down, the energy level keeps propelling the dancers to one more fling. On the Brooklyn program it was particularly effective following ``Inlets'' without an intermission. ``Inlets,'' with Cage's Zenlike score for water-filled conch shells and burning pine cones, is meditative, often still, and the dancers hover breathlessly and start up, like a flock of shore birds.