Merce Cunningham troupe: You can almost hear a metronome

Rhythm is so basic to dancing one tends to take it for granted. Merce Cunningham happens to be the most rhythmic choreographer in the world, but if there's one absolute rule the master has preached over the years, it's never take anything for granted.

Basic assumptions and materials are worthy of continual reexamination, his dances declare. All dances are rhythmic, but one can make dances aboutm rhythm. Which is what Cunningham has done in the two new pieces that were recently by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the City Center here. They'll also be seen on a tour of several cities in Minnesta beginning April 18, and in early May at Ohio State University. Afterward the company will tour Europe.

Since rhythm is the subject, it's not surprising that the new dances contain numbers in their titles. "Ten's with Shoes" refers to ten-beat dance phrases. "Fielding Sixes" refers to the beat of John Cage's score, a wild fantasy on the Irish jig. Yet you don't have to know this information to sense the intent and kinetic feel of the dances. The first and chief quality one feels in "Ten's with Shoes" is the evenness of the rhythm. The seven dancers move in such steady, discrete beats that you can almost hear a metronome in the background.

Interestingly, the imagined metronome grips one more strongly than the very sounds of the score, by Martin Kalve. More curiously, even though the music is a crazy, freewheeling montage of sound, it doesn't affect one's impression of the dance as being incredibly difficult.

The second distinctive quality of "Ten's with Shoes" is a contrast between that strict meter and fanciful, almost fussy movement. It's not bodies, but necks and elbows and toes that move -- like delicate rat-a-tat-tats. Every "i" is dotted, every beat is accounted for. Sometimes this baroque approach produces a chirpy effect; at other times, a panorama of sheer eccentricity. Indeed, were it not for that steady rhythm, "Ten's with Shoes" might look like a genteel loony bin -- for, you see, the dancers wear immaculately white shoes.

"Fielding Sixes" is more disturbing than oddball. With St. Patrick's Day not far behind, the Irish jig's powerfully insistent, savage rhythm is a fresh memory.

How was Cunningham going to handle this overabundance (to put it mildly) of rhythm? Or to take the dance's title at its word, how was he going to field the sixes? His solution was to invent other kinds of rhythms. Dance and music proceed at crosscurrents (to borrow the title of another Cunningham dance), but because Cage's score is so overwhelming, the two elements scrape against each other. The scraping is reinforced when the dancers actually do jig phrases, but in slower, more stately rhythm.

"Fielding Sixes" is most upsetting, quite ironically, when the dancing is most rhythmic. You can see it, but you can't feel it. The main experience is of dissonance and resistance. Try waltzing slowly to a jig, and you'll get some idea of how discomforting Cunningham's solution can be.

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