Upbeat ending for series

The Masters of American Dance series, which has run through the winter at the New York City Center, concludes with a choreographer who truly fits the bill. From the moment the lights go up on a Merce Cunningham dance, one is drawn into the very center kernel of dance. Cunningham's choreography and his dancers' performance skills allow us to contemplate bodies that are at once unadorned of manner and style and yet incredibly rich inshape and pulse. If Cunningham, after so many years of choreographing, is still the maverick of modern dance, his work nevertheless makes one understand why others should want to grapple with the form. He exposes all the possibilities and mysteries.

The Cunningham season, which runs until March 2, opened with what has become a signature piece. "Torse" is probably the most thematically and tonally unadorned dance in the current repertory, yet it has the fascination of those ballet-classroom numbers like "Etudes." "Torse" is an exposition of technique, but unlike its counterparts which keep raising the ante in virtuosity, "Torse" maintains the same cool heat throughout. Its build-up comes from other, more subtle sources -- from counterpoint between groups and surprising repetition of phrases.

Yet even in this ultra white-on-white dance, powerful images emerge. At opening night it happened when Susan Emery was doing a slow, serene adagio instage center and Chris Komar was bounding around her. The possible connections between them started to impinge on one's consciousness. Was he a celebrant of her severe beauty, or was he trying to erase the power of her calm? Or was, in fact, nothing going on? For the longest time one was held in suspense, until finally he crept beside her, took her hand, and gently lifted her in a small circle. He was, it seemed, a lover come home. Others would feel the moment in different ways, but its poignancy, so powerful for its fleetingness, is what makes Cunningham dances throb with life. That little motif of being lifted in a small circle reappears later in "Torse," with the same tender reverberation. That's what makes Cunningham dances glow with a sense of completion.

Each of the three other dances on the program had its special moments, but premieres traditionally hog the show even with such an untraditional choreographer as Cunningham. The premiere was "Locale," an it is a puzzler. Its premises are highly provocative; its conclusions somewhat inconclusive. First is the matter of dominant silhouette. In "Locale" the dancers' arms are squared off, making them look like totems who don't want to be touched. Yet much of the dance is for couples and trios. Its rhythms are decidedly even-keeled, but if one were to pick the distinuishing feature of "Locale," it would be its short-lived phrases.I don't think any phrase is longer than four beats.

This jaggedness of momentum and body line should yeild an unsettling atmosphere, right? Wrong. "Locale" is spare but buoyant. Perhaps the palette of Charles Atlas's costumes, like expensive sherbets, gives "Locale" an elegant sheen it might not have were costumes more workaday. Or perhaps it's simply that "Locale" needs more time to find its tonal location.

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