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Cunningham sees dance as a constant transformation of life itself

The Dancer and the Dance: Merce Cunningham in Conversation With Jacqueline Lesschaeve. New York: Marion Boyars Publishers/Scribner. 238 pp. $27.50. Merce Cunningham is a choreographer devoted to enlarging the possibilities of dance. He evolved a movement vocabulary that combines ballet's articulate legwork, and the strength and flexibility in the back that modern dance requires, with the smaller gestures of everyday life. His non-linear, theatrical style is revolutionary. And his requirement that his dancers not be expressive but do the movement cleanly and let it be the expression opened a new era in modern dance. What's m ore, he kept producing his work since 1942, even though there was little public response to it until 1964, when his company got so much praise on a world tour that the New York press finally took notice.

One of the most revealing things in ``The Dancer and the Dance'' is an offhand comment about leaky roofs. Working in low-rent studios in New York, Cunningham often had to patch the roof. Viola Farber, an early Cunningham dancer, said he did a better job than workmen she called, because he had more experience. Cunningham tells this without apparent bitterness. It will be shocking to anyone who has ever been stunned and invigorated by his work to think of him wasting any time up on a roof. But his r esponse to other problems -- touring in a Volkswagen bus and cooking meals outside to save money on restaurants, keeping his dancers moving fast throughout classes because there was little heat -- is just another facet of his gift for invention.

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Last year, he was awarded one of the MacArthur Foundation's ``genius grants''; and in December, he will receive the Kennedy Center's highest award for artistic achievement.

Fortune and government approval could be stultifying to one whose muse is the wolf at the door. But Cunningham doesn't just wait for challenges to come to him. He seeks them out. When he finds some movement he does awkwardly, he says, ``Oh, I must practice that. There's something there I don't know about, some kind of life.'' He requires great skill of his dancers, but, he says, ``Say that one of them is moving, and he falls down. I think, `Now that's OK, now we can go on!' But it's when they MDU Ldon't fall down, when they always stay rigid, secure, safe, when they always think that everything is right, that's where I think it doesn't work.''

His is a relentlessly questioning mind. The only problem with this book is that Miss Lesschaeve follows him so avidly through his explorations that she may lose less-committed readers. It opens with a rather technical discussion of his masterful, complicated dance ``Torse'' (one observer thought there were about 60 dancers in it; there were only 10). An account of a system he devised to determine aspects of the choreography by tossing a coin or throwing the I Ching could scare a non-initiate away.

That would be a shame, because later, when he explains why he uses chance, we see why he'll always have something to dance about, and what it means to be a pioneer. He's often asked if he ever rejects a movement that comes up with the toss of a coin. ``I explain that I would always try it because the mind will say `you can't do it,' but more often than not you can, or you see another way, and that's what's amazing. In some cases it's impossible, but something else happens, some other possibility appears , and your mind opens.''

Passing the age when bankers retire, Cunningham not only goes on choreographing -- he's still dancing. He quite rightly identifies stereotypical thinking as the only thing that could slow him down. ``I dance because it gives me deep pleasure,'' he says. ``Not only because of the questions that are raised through dancing, but because of dancing itself. . . . I don't see why clich'es or conventional ideas should interfere with the explorations that I can still make. Those people wh o are shocked think of dancing in a very limited way. I think of dance as a constant transformation of life itself.''

Ideas like this are the real rewards of this book. The indexes, reproductions of his choreographic sketches, and photographs will be helpful for scholars, and I'd like to reread the ``Torse'' passage after a concert. But Cunningham's spirit speaks to anyone facing any daunting project, from fixing a roof to persuading people to move and see differently.

Maggie Lewis is the Monitor's dance critic.

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