In his lifelong project of leading modern dance toward new and untried areas, Merce Cunningham has turned to cinema as a tool. Working with filmmaker Charles Atlas, he has choreographed a series of works intended primarily for the movie screen, the video tube, or both. Now a collection of these works has been shown for the first time in a regular movie theater - the Carnegie Hall Cinema in New York, which is run by the Center for Public Cinema.
Shown just three times as a ''special event,'' the program began with Channels/Inserts, the latest ''filmdance collaboration'' between Cunningham and Atlas, who have been working together for more than ten years. The main action, so to speak, is a jauntily choreographed dance that takes place in a large studio. Intercut with this are contrasting scenes in a dingy hallway. The movie shifts between these two settings, using animated ''dissolves'' that shatter and transform the image before our eyes.
It's a fascinating experiment, with real visual impact at times. But film and dance don't go easily together, and neither Cunningham nor Atlas has solved the big problems posed by mixing them. As always, cinematic rhythm competes with choreographic rhythm. Meanwhile, the camera eye creates balances and compositions that dictate the ''look'' of the dance in ways that can seem limiting or downright contrary.
It's important to note that Cunningham's choreography was created for the express purpose of meshing with Atlas's cinematics. Still, for all the integrity of ''Channels/Inserts,'' there's something pale and distant about the experience. As dance always does, it looks better on stage and in the flesh, as it was (in a specially re-choreographed version) during the Merce Cunningham Dance Company's latest New York visit. Indeed, when seen ''live'' it's a highly engaging dance, with fine flashes of humor and imagination. On film, it looks like its own poor relation - suggesting the richness of dance and cinema, but realizing the potential of neither. Even the (literally) electric score of David Tudor seems rather pallid under the cinematic circumstances.
Also on the bill was ''Locale,'' another semi-successful merger of choreography and motion pictures, and ''Roamin' I,'' a collection of carefully edited ''outtakes'' that record the creation of ''Locale.'' The finest work of the evening, however, was the superb ''Blue Studio: Five Segments,'' a videotape transferred to film. Alone on the screen, Cunningham dances a five-part solo, with a different background for each portion. Though it has the appearance of a minor piece, with its short sections and visual humor, its very modesty contributes to a nearly seamless blend of choreographic and videographic elements. Since video is capable of dazzling color and editing effects, and lacks the movie screen's mimicry of ''reality,'' perhaps it - rather than film - is the natural habitat for recorded dance. The wonderful ''Blue Studio'' makes a compelling argument in that direction.