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Merce Cunningham Company: the supertechnicians of dance

In ``Phrases,'' by Merce Cunningham, a man picks up a woman by the wrist and she stretches her legs with such firm grace that she doesn't dangle but rides sublimely. Enjoying the moment precludes knowing how the group zagging out of the corner in the background zigged in there. But that's the way things happen in the work of this choreographer, who will receive the Kennedy Center Honor next month. Mr. Cunningham has abandoned the 19th-century convention of putting all the action at center stage. It can crop up anywhere -- and frequently everywhere -- so the viewer just chooses what to look at, as in everyday life.

Of course, what you see here is rare in everyday life. While ``Phrases'' is moving like an expressway in rush hour, especially on the small stage at the Stamford Center for the Arts, the woman lifted by the wrist is lowered toward the ground. Her toes touch for a moment, bound up, then touch again. She looks like a doe springing across a field. But she also looks concerned with the next move, the counts of the dance, and the people around her. Cunningham's dancers are told not to be expres sive, but to let the movement be the expression. Especially in ``Phrases,'' the company looks like an earnest team of technicians as they chart their way through moments of poetry.

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The workmanlike feeling came across strongly -- almost humorously -- when Cunningham himself appeared with Catherine Kerr in a pas de deux with all the wind taken out of its sails. He gave Kerr his hand to lean on, but instead of gazing absorbedly at her as she turned, stretched, and balanced, he faced the audience straight on and deadpan. In ballet, partnering hides the dancers' efforts so they only seem to be standing close to each other because they're so in love. Cunningham was obviously there to gi ve Kerr a hand. As he stood stock still and let her lunge and balance in the air, you had the feeling you were watching two telephone linemen working on a tricky hookup rather than the standard prince and princess.

They were so sturdily cooperative, Kerr's poised strength almost went unnoticed. Almost. The plain effort and support were more touching than romance. Entering and leaving the stage, Cunningham and Kerr held hands. On the way in, Cunningham seemed to be leading a student. As they left, the powerful Kerr gave him her hand as if looking after her teacher.

In this company, the dancers all look different. They're tall, short, muscular, and long. Dancing in a group, they don't move as one, but as themselves, cooperating. But the discipline of their dancing is apparent. Cunningham has said his work, rather than telling a story, is about ``humans doing something.'' The dance becomes a job or a challenge, and soon a viewer forgets to look for stars and climaxes and becomes as engrossed in it as the dancers are.

If ``Phrases'' looks crowded, ``Pictures'' is a distillation. Both pieces have 15 dancers, but ``Pictures'' moves so harmoniously and with such purity that it's a surprise at the curtain call to see how many are involved.

Unlike earlier Cunningham dances, which were full of leaps and rebounds, ``Pictures'' moves gracefully downward. The dancers, often linked, make long, beautiful lines. Watching ``Pictures'' is like watching someone think. The shapes flow out of each other like ideas, in odd and improbable sequences, but with continuity and a feeling of opening out.

At one point, a dancer leans slowly over sideways until his head is on the floor. His feet are being held up by another dancer, and he holds the hands of a third dancer, who has curled herself over backward above his head like a loop. Difficult as this must be, it isn't presented as a stunt. It's just another loop in the line. Cunningham again supports a balancing, turning dancer, but this time he looks more like a choreographer than her partner. He watches over an arabesque, holding a hand held above h er outstretched leg as if to protect and gauge the shape.

At the end, he stands, holding another dancer horizontally, low in his arms. She droops on both sides of him. This could be poignant -- Cunningham in his maturity, holding a dancer as young and pliant as a palm frond. It could also be sinister. But it is neither. The movement has such continuity that the dance doesn't really seem to be over. Cunningham looks like nothing so much as an artist who paused, holding his paintbrush.

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The Merce Cunningham Dance Company is appearing through Sunday at the Music Hall, Detroit; then Nov. 30-Dec. 6 in the Joyce Theater, New York. On Dec. 7-8 Cunningham receives the Kennedy Center Honor, and the company dances in Kennedy Center to be televised on CBS Dec. 27, 9-11 p.m. On Jan. 29, '86, the Paris Opera Ballet performs Cunningham's ``Un Jour ou Deux'' in Paris.

Please see page 38 for a review of a book containing interviews with Merce Cunningham.

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