NEW YORK — A COUPLE of Sundays ago a group of dancers gathered in the Jos'e Lim'on studio to enact one of dance's most momentous offstage rituals: Under the direction of reconstructor Ray Cook, they were trying to recover a dance that had been lost for 30 years. Choreography is perhaps the most elusive of human achievements. Unless it is preserved in the bodies of dancers and performed often enough to keep imprinting itself on their memories, a dance quickly slips away. Films and videotape yield at least an approximate visual documentation of a dance. Notation systems can capture steps, patterns, and rhythms in symbolic written form, though even these records don't always provide the stylistic information that gives dances their characteristic look. But when films and notated scores don't exist at all, and the dance has left the active repertory, a major scavenger hunt is all that can reassemble the thousands of bits in a choreographic design.
It was soon after Mr. Cook arrived in the United States from Australia in 1961 that he came across a partial score for Doris Humphrey's ``Dawn in New York'' while browsing in the library of the Dance Notation Bureau.
``I was attracted to the title,'' he said recently. ``From the movie musicals I'd seen growing up in Australia, I had wonderful romantic images of people coming home from parties through the deserted streets: the milkman, the paperboy, the city coming awake.''
In 1986 Cook, now a member of the faculty at Vassar College, was looking for a dance to research in a course at City College of New York, where he was pursuing a master of arts degree in dance. He remembered ``Dawn in New York.'' ``As soon as I got into it,'' he says, ``I found out Humphrey had something else in mind.''
``Dawn'' was based on some bitterly disillusioned lines of the poet Federico Garc'ia Lorca, beginning ``The New York dawn has four columns of mud and a hurricane of black doves....'' Humphrey made a surrealistic dance in which harpy-like Black Doves tormented mechanistic Workers, and a Young Man yearned after a lyrical girl named Spring.
The emergence of hope and beauty out of despair was a frequent theme for the great modern-dance choreographer. Though physically incapacitated when she made ``Dawn,'' Humphrey was choreographing for the Jos'e Lim'on company and heading a group of students and young professionals, the Juilliard Dance Theater. For the latter group she made three poetic works, the best of which was ``Dawn in New York.'' Premi`ered in April 1956 at the Juilliard School, the dance was kept in repertory until the choreographer's death at the end of 1958.
Nearly three decades later, Cook decided to see if he could reconstruct the dance. The first phase of his research consisted of locating all the information he could about the dance. His most substantial resource was the ``Labanotation'' score, a sketch of about 12 minutes of the 18-minute dance. Muriel Topaz, then a young notator and now director of dance at Juilliard, explains that ``Dawn'' was only the second dance she tried to record, and that she couldn't complete the job because of the arrival of her first child.
``Labanotation'' is very precise, and many viewings are needed to record the positions, counts, and actions of every dancer in a given dance. Like a composer, a notator might write the main themes first, then fill in the details and embellishments. The 21 dancers in ``Dawn in New York'' were divided into three groups, 12 female Black Doves, seven male Workers, and the central couple. In typical Humphrey fashion, however, the groups are often subdivided into smaller units that work in counterpoint, and the mass patterns contain much individualized movement.
COOK determined that about 302 measures of choreography had been notated, including some overlaps and unfinished phrases. He contacted Hunter Johnson, whose 1936 ``Concerto for Piano and Orchestra'' had accompanied the dance. When Johnson sent him a piano score, Cook discovered that the music ran to 600 measures. This didn't mean that half the dance was missing from the ``Labanotation,'' however, because dancers count by movement phrases, and Humphrey's counterpoint often spanned the musical meter.
In the Juilliard library, Cook found a recording of the dance made in performance, which told him what the tempos were and allowed him to visualize at what point in the overture the curtain must have gone up and at which points the dance changed moods. Sometimes he could hear the sound of the dancers' feet and match certain steps precisely to both scores.
He learned the steps himself and later taught them to dancers of Ann Vachon's Dance Conduit in Philadelphia. Once Cook actually saw the choreography with the music, he was able to make further adjustments - one movement might take longer to do than another, and so occupy more measures of music. All this information was supplemented by photographs, specific actions described by reviewers, and recollections of the original dancers. Cook pieced it all together to make a scenario which he overlaid on the ``Labanotation'' score. Now he knew what he had and what was still missing, bar by bar.
After 10 days of rehearsals in Philadelphia, Vachon's dancers showed what they had to an invited audience here that included Ms. Topaz and eight of the original dancers. Apologizing for the necessarily fragmentary nature of her work, Topaz urged those who knew the dance to point out the errors and gaps, and, after two run-throughs, memories came flooding out.
``There's a moment when you were me,'' Diane Adler said to one of the Black Doves. ``You stopped!'' Ms. Adler stood perched on one foot. ``I remember holding there for 12 counts.''
``I don't remember anything,'' John Wilson declared. ``But this movement the Black Doves do'' - Wilson hopped on one leg while stamping the other and hitching it up quickly. ``Doris said she went to Times Square late at night when she was choreographing this, and looked at people. She went to clubs and looked at them jitterbugging. This movement is buoyant, but evil and dirty. It's digging out of the floor.''
``Get on her back,'' Poligena Rogers instructed a Black Dove who was harassing Spring. ``It's too easy. You should drag on her.''
John Barker, the original Young Man, smiled ruefully and said he couldn't remember anything he had done. ``Doris was interested in aleatory techniques at the time, in seeing what would happen if everyone was choreographed except one person, who would improvise. I kept changing all the time. Maybe that's why my part wasn't notated.'' Then Barker recounted his own unhappy experiences in coming to New York for the first time, as soloists Jan Pillar and Roy Griffiths listened intently.
All through the afternoon Topaz and Cook called out questions. How did you enter and exit? What was the ``plot''? The original dancers were pretty sure the dance ended on a positive note, ``going somewhere, with a future,'' but exactly how Humphrey staged it they couldn't recall.
Cook hoped that seeing the dance and hearing the music again would help the dancers retrieve the six missing minutes. This didn't happen, but a process of collective recall was set in motion. Several days later, Cook was deciding whether to continue his quest. There are still Juilliard dancers he hasn't contacted. He wants to show videotapes of the run-through to those who weren't there. Chester Wolenski, the Young Man who replaced John Barker in a second cast, was able to rechoreograph three lost phrases before he saw the reconstruction. Maybe Mr. Wolenski can bring back more.
Cook must make a decision in the next few weeks whether to continue with Dance Conduit, which hopes to perform the dance publicly in May, or stop and put everything he's learned on file at the Dance Notation Bureau. ``I get cold feet,'' he says. ``I feel I can put it together, direct it, but other people will have to come up with the choreography.''