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Merce Cunningham: dance's bold adventurer. Audiences used to throw things; now they love his unconventional moves

I never think of anything as definitive,'' says dancer Merce Cunningham about his work. ``It's like saying this is a definitive day, or a definitive breath. It just seems that way until another comes along!'' This love of change and spontaneity has helped make Mr. Cunningham a giant of modern dance. In the 41 years since his first New York solo program, he has seen his unconventional ideas -- as dancer, choreographer, and thinker -- move from the margin to the heart of the performing world.

Today his work remains alive, unpredictable, and more popular than ever. His tours and New York engagements are greeted not only with glowing reviews, but with large and enthusiastic audiences -- unfazed by abstract steps, quirky gestures, and an orchestra pit filled with whirring and chirping electronic gear. He has also plunged into video, using it to create a new form of recorded dance.

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Talking with him in a cluttered corner of his Manhattan studio, you wouldn't guess Cunningham is a giant. Or an iconoclast. He wears rehearsal fatigues and rests on a plain wooden bench. He speaks quietly, punctuating his favorite notions with soft, throaty chuckles.

What accounts for the wide appeal of his unconventional work? Cunningham offers the most modest of reasons. ``We've been around a long time,'' he says simply, ``and people have gotten used to us. Twenty years ago, when we first appeared in Paris, they threw things and complained. Now people talk about the same things, but say how interesting they are.''

On a deeper level, he feels that ideas like his ``have become part of society,'' since art and life mirror each other. Take the complexity of his work. ``We live in such a complex atmosphere that people can now accept it onstage,'' says the dancer, ``and not feel it's out of their realm.''

The same goes for the freewheeling noises -- more like random sound than traditional music -- of composer John Cage, his longtime collaborator. ``It's all part of daily life,'' Cunningham says. ``People hear it all day long when they go out.''

Of the many ideas associated with his work, the one that still excites Cunningham most -- judging from the ring of his voice -- is his respect for the unexpected. ``I'd rather find out something new than repeat what I know,'' he says. ``I prefer an adventure to something that's fixed.''

Audiences are invited to share the adventure, but Cunningham doesn't see himself as an aesthetic tour guide who must explain or justify each bend in the road. Asked about ``communication,'' he looks down his nose at the word.

``You can use a telephone for that,'' he says, ``and I don't telephone very often. What we do is present an experience that can be different for everyone who sees it.''

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The kernel of this approach -- and of life itself, says Cunningham -- is constant change and renewal. He disagrees with the view that art should offer finished, polished works. ``History provides that, not art,'' he says. ``Someone decides that's the piece, but if they were around when the artist made it, they might have a totally different idea about it. What is it Shaw says in one of his plays? History will lie as usual!''

Cunningham also rejects the thought that art must obey firm standards. ``One person's standard is somebody else's junk,'' he says. ``If someone makes a rule, someone else is bound to break it.'' His own guiding principle? ``You present a situation. You accept what happens. Then you push on.''

The same philosophy steers his video work. Cunningham got interested in TV during the mid-'70s, when he realized that more and more dance was bound to appear there. Instead of relying on nondancers to wield the camera, he decided to study the medium himself.

What he found was ``a new kind of visual medium with its own possibilities. Everything is different from the stage: dancers, movement, space, time, and the effects they make. Most dancers I talked to didn't like it for that reason. But I thought that was the interesting thing.''

Cunningham still delights in the oddities of TV technique, including the simplest aspects. ``For someone to leave the stage,'' he says, ``they have to go away. With video, you just move the camera!''

As for skeptics, he dismisses them as old-fashioned. ``Think of the first people who came in from the village green to dance on a stage,'' he smiles. ``They must have thought it was terrible -- you always have to come on from the side!''

Both live and on-screen, Cunningham's work continues to grow from ideas and methods he established years ago. One is the insistence that dance, music, sets, and costumes each has its own life -- created separately by independent artists, then brought together to share a single span of time before an audience.

This method has risks, but Cunningham feels the components of a work rarely get in each other's way. As proof, he recalls a dance accompanied by Cage reading stories to the audience. ``One person came backstage and said he couldn't pay attention to the dance because of the stories. Someone else said, `What stories?' It's different for everyone. . . .''

Affection for ambiguity is another Cunningham constant. You'll never hear a Beethoven work accompany one of his dances because, he says, ``That has intention. And if the music has intention, it doesn't leave things free.'' He prefers music of the Cage variety, created through chance and intuition. ``When the music is sound -- not intended to mean something -- it opens things out in a different way,'' he insists.

This doesn't mean his dances are random affairs, though. While music allows for chance elements, dance must cope with ``traffic problems'' that call for careful order and design. ``When you're dealing with real virtuosity,'' says Cunningham, ``everyone has to know what they're doing at every single moment, or there's the danger of an accident.''

Does this mean he has strict rules? ``No food in the studio!'' he replies with a grin. Then he adds more seriously, ``It's not a matter of rules, really, but trying to find new ways for things to happen.'' He tries not to ride herd on his dancers too closely, because he wants their individual personalities to come out in their performances. He finds running his company like walking a tightrope. ``On one side is a very clear idea of technique and how things are done. On the other is the idea of just dancing.''

As important as technique is in his work, it's the ``just dancing'' that has inspired Cunningham most since the start of his career. This explains his yen for ambiguity, which he sees as liberating rather than confusing. ``Telling stories in dance, or being explicit about something, seems to pin things down,'' he says. ``I prefer the multiplicity of `Finnegan's Wake' to something that tells us what it's all about.

``One always comes into a work burdened with one's memories, but it's marvelous if you can get rid of them when you see or hear something. I feel it's enlightening if you don't even know what something is. When I first looked at abstract expressionist painting, there were no words to describe it -- and that was fine! There are so many possibilities for dance, if you just don't get your head stuck. . . .''

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company is appearing now through April 23 in Chicago, and it will also perform this spring in Italy, England, and France. Then it returns to New York (June 20-29) with the large-scale ``Roaratorio,'' bringing dance, music, and James Joyce to the Park Avenue Armory. -- 30 --

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