Dance on TV as it should be done

Points in Space Arts & Entertainment cable, tomorrow, 9-10 p.m. (check local listings). Choreography: Merce Cunningham. Music: John Cage. Directors: Elliot Caplan and Merce Cunningham. Co-production of BBC-TV and the Cunningham Dance Foundation Inc. As the narrator puts it, ``Even the camera danced'' during the filming of Merce Cunningham's dance for television, ``Points in Space.'' It shows Cunningham choreographing for television and his co-producer, Elliot Caplan, choreographing the camera, and it shows the dance that results in a way that dance should always be seen on television - but rarely is.

In the first half of the documentary, Merce Cunningham studies the dancers through a camera viewfinder. Composer John Cage, working with a computerized voice synthesizer, puts together a score made up of many permutations of his own reading of words from Henry David Thoreau. Cage and Cunningham work independently of each other, so that neither dance nor music is based on the other.

Dancer Catherine Kurr explains that, though the dancers often hear the music for the first time at the first performance, ``We're all so busy trying to do the dance ... that the sound doesn't always enter'' to confuse them. Artists Bill Anastasi, who designed a cyclorama to surround the dance in the BBC studio, says Cunningham told him to ``think of weather.''

The result of all this work is that the TV screen seems large and full of interesting events, instead of tiny and flat, the way it often looks when dance is televised. The cyclorama, with its streaks and scribbles and washes of color, is like weather, which changes as dancers move around. The view shifts constantly as different people enter and leave the camera's range.

The camera work gives you the feeling that there's more dance beyond the edges, but it's not frustrating. Rather it gives the sense of richness, as does a live Cunningham performance. At one point, while four dancers move in unison, another dancer's head appears in the corner of the picture, arcing up beautifully, then disappearing. Cunningham is first seen over the back of an arabesque-ing dancer, then seems to wander out from under another's arm. The camera plays with the depth of the space. A couple dancing suddenly becomes tiny as another couple looms up.

Cage's music, ``Voiceless Essay,'' sighs, hisses, and whispers around the action. Everything works to plunge the viewer for a while into an enchanted world inhabited by sleek, strong people in spotted leotards, who move with the energy and determination of budding twigs in springtime.

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