Like most postmodern performance, Merce Cunningham's ``Carousal'' subverts the popular conventions on which it draws for inspiration. ``Carousal'' is a deliberately half-realized circus, a three-ring, ragamuffin rout that teases us by not being funny or spectacular in the ways we expect, and ends up charming us with a sportiveness of its own. ``Carousal,'' which had its premi`ere at Jacob's Pillow last summer, is the first of two dances new to New York that are included in the Cunningham company's March-long spring repertory at the Joyce Theater. The season marks the company's 35th anniversary.
It's interesting to see Cunningham choreographing so nearly ``about'' something, or using another theatrical form as a takeoff point. But, come to think about it, he has frequently adopted circusy and vaudevillian frameworks for his dances, only to sling them sideways and dump them on their heads. These playful pieces make their appearance every few years amid Cunningham's more pristine choreographies, and make quick exits, leaving hardly a trace.
``Carousal'' is a series of eccentric dance events, set against a not unpleasant sound collage of sirens, whistles, slide-kazoos, melismatic voices, and sticks being rubbed together, by Takehisa Kosugi and Michael Pugliese.
The dancers are dressed in a thrift shop wardrobe of long johns, boxer shorts, and floppy tops, which designer Dove Bradshaw has assembled, cut, or draped to give each of the 13 dancers an individual flair.
Some of the stunts, in no particular order: Catherine Kerr and Helen Barrow stand on each side of Alan Good, steadying him as he balances in different positions. Kerr and Robert Swinston have a duet like a ballet adagio, in which he holds her by the hand as she pivots on one foot - and then he pivots under their joined arms, and they continue twirling through and round each other without relinking arms, while she continues to balance on the same foot.
Six men line up arm in arm, tilting and fanning toward the ground, and Barrow flits from one to the other like a swallow looking for a place to nest.
Patricia Lent and Kristy Santimyer have a busy duet where they trade the fastest and clunkiest steps.
Chris Komar, David Kulick, and Swinston run in from the wings, one at a time, hurl themselves into crooked positions, and leave again. Good and Kerr sprawl indulgently on top of each other, with a half-filled beach ball between them.
Then there are bigger ``acts.'' People carry on long gray sausage-like ropy things and ostentatiously flip them onto the floor to make circles about eight feet across. Inside the circles, spectacular but nearly invisible things happen, like three men doing very big jumping sequences simultaneously.
A square piece of red gauze is brought on by three people. They stand behind it and do minimal tricks. The two on the ends lift it quickly and the one in the middle jumps so that he appears not to be there. But of course you can see his shadow behind it all the time. After about four tricks, equally surprising because of the way they don't work, the curtain-holders skulk away with the prop under their arms.
Three people lie on the floor in a star pattern with their feet together. As others dance over them, they twiddle their feet together in balletic petits battlements. With two women holding his hands, Swinston pretends to walk a tightrope, teetering and screwing up his face as if he weren't securely anchored to the ground.
After about half an hour, three men come out and stand facing the audience. Three women climb up the fronts of them, and in that position, with the women fastened around their necks, the men mime hauling on ropes. Magically, perhaps, the curtain falls.