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Form Over Feelings

For Merce Cunningham, moving bodies are meant to tease the intellect.

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Merce Cunningham Dance Company | HARRIS THEATER FOR MUSIC AND DANCE, FRI 10/12

RTG Dance | LINK'S HALL

Merce Cunningham's a nerd. He cares less about good looks than he does about ideas--the shapes his dancers take aren't heroic, pretty, or tragic. Instead they're like mathematical variations on the ways the human body can be articulated, with the neck jutting perilously sideways or the thoracic spine thrust alarmingly forward. Cunningham is also obsessed with technology. Since 1991 he's used the computer program DanceForms when choreographing, and he often incorporates technology in his works; in Biped, seen here a few years ago, computerized cyberdancers perform alongside flesh-and-blood company members.

CRWDSPCR, a 1993 ensemble work on the Cunningham company's first program at the Harris last weekend, is particularly odd looking. The merciless unitards that are Cunningham's signature--revealing every articulation of the body as well as every bump--are divided into four different-colored quadrants. What Not to Wear wouldn't approve of this harlequin look, but it does enhance perception of the body's divisions. In an early mass section, with all 13 dancers doing something different, I focused on one "walking" bizarrely, one leg crossing over the other with each step, his arms and chest curved forward and head facing straight ahead. After several steps he'd take a little leap, not gaining much height or distance because of the undancerly position of his spine.

CRWDSPCR is filled with such phrases. But as odd as they are, and as odd as the heavily manipulated sampling of John King's steel guitar recording is, what's even odder is the way it all adds up to a simultaneously exhilarating and hypnotizing experience. Cunningham, now 88, is famously intrigued by Zen principles, and CRWDSPCR definitely has a Zen effect.

Crises--an early dance, created in 1960--uses only five dancers, four women and one man. Given the title and the unusual distribution of sexes, I amused myself by thinking of it as a relationship dance. And it is different from CRWDSPCR, where the dancers' spatial relationships never communicate feeling (even when they face each other or touch, it seems like an accidental intersection). Crises isn't touchy-feely, but when the dancers look at each other it means something. In one early sequence a woman scoots along the floor on her side, looking blankly at the audience; the man scoots along too, following closely behind, but at each pause he tries to peer over her shoulder at her face.

Gazes are important in Crises. In one striking section, a woman makes her courtly way across the stage, rising on half toe every few steps. She stands in profile, miraculously still, for maybe five seconds, an eternity in dance, then slowly turns her head to look at the audience, a movement perfectly calibrated with the lowering of her heels to the floor. This simple but technically demanding motion, repeated, communicates a sense of mysterious meaning.

But overall Crises is more tongue-in-cheek melodrama than drama; Conlon Nancarrow's player-piano score heightens that impression. The title seems ironic, and the man is somehow funny and a little pathetic, inept and ultimately rejected by all the women. Cunningham isn't much interested in emotion, so his "emotional" dance derides feeling and attachment.

The work that's gotten the most press is eyeSpace, in which audience members use iPods to create their own scores by sampling tracks from Mikel Rouse's International Cloud Atlas. The most technology-heavy piece performed here, it takes Cunningham's famed chance techniques in a new direction: this is simply a high-tech version of tossing a coin, which Cunningham has also done, to randomize the viewing experience.

But eyeSpace was the least satisfying dance of the three. The intentionally inane songs are wildly atypical of Cunningham's usual spare scores, referencing a variety of pop styles from around the globe and including lyrics like "Look who's shopping at the Gaza Strip mall" and "I almost lost my fork, but I did not lose my fork" (which sounds caressingly suggestive in French). In between songs or when I briefly lifted my headphones I could hear the score being broadcast in the theater; it included city sounds like car horns and sounded vaguely threatening. It made me feel like we were people on the el or the street erasing our surroundings with our own personal soundtracks.

I found the avalanche of noise, the shifting styles of music and various sounds shifting between my ears, so distracting that I couldn't focus on the dance. Sometimes Cunningham makes the choreography seem like just another aspect of the overall aural and visual design, but in eyeSpace I felt the choreography was ho-hum. Maybe that's his point, that while apocalypse hovers we retreat to isolated, meaningless distractions, including his own dances. But we don't need a nerve-jangling experience like eyeSpace to figure that out.

Nerds, who can be brilliant, are invaluable for bringing radical innovation to a society. But Cunningham's dances scour the mind of feeling. So I was looking forward last weekend to RTG Dance's Once Removed: Peripeteia. Choreographer Rachel Thorne Germond, who's been working on the evening-length piece for two years, uses Aristotle's Poetics and a pop-culture sensibility to explore, as she says in a program note, the "ways that we make sense of loss and disaster."

But Germond's snapshot approach--the hour-long work has 13 sections--and overburdened design undercut her intention. Mason Dixon's video projections do add atmosphere, but the snatches of different music and the seven performers' numerous costume changes tax the senses without adding meaning. A Q and A after the performance provided some insight into Germond's method: costume designer Pate Conaway said she'd given him a "map" of the piece. But you don't follow a road map to feeling. Germond's overly theoretical approach means that the viewer can't have the emotional experience of tragedy that would have brought Aristotle's ideas to life. The result is a busy, meaningless postmodern distance rather than detached, meditative calm.

Once Removed: Peripeteia

Through 10/21: Fri-Sun 8 PM, Link's Hall, 3435 N. Sheffield, 773-281-0824, $15

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): eyeSpace photo by Anna Finke.

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