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Melding hoedown, boxing match, county fair

Merce Cunningham is not a literal-minded choreographer, so his latest dance comes as an amiable surprise. In many ways ``Grange Eve'' is as cool, composed, and self-contained as other ``abstract'' works the Merce Cunningham Dance Company showed off during its recent City Center engagement. But it's also -- improbably, deliciously, and unmistakably -- a hoedown, a boxing match, a luxurious day at the county fair.

What's most unexpected about this lovable new work is the everyday imagery that crops up again and again, much of it suggesting a rural atmosphere that ties in with the title: hints of friendly games and contests, the unsteady steps of a tippler who's had one too many, a prizefight that doesn't quite happen, a sweet and silly time when the men take walking-sticks in hand, as if they were a lineup of sidewalk vaudevillians.

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The fresh, engaging nature of all this is heightened, moreover, by the non-dance elements of the work. These include an evocative backdrop by William Anastasi, one of the troupe's artistic advisors; and a splendid specimen of ``chance'' music by Takehisa Kosugi, called ``Assemblage,'' often suggest ing the sound of household articles (especially the kitchen variety) being affectionately patted, thumped, and whacked. Cunningham's penchant for separately devised music, dance, and d'ecor has been the target of much skepticism over the years, but the seamless artistry of ``Grange Eve'' makes a good Exhibit A for supporters of his ``indeterminate'' aesthetic.

The dancing itself, as usual for this company, was accurate and expressive throughout the performance I caught -- including the witty movements of Cunningham himself, a major presence in the work.

Another treat of the City Center run was the New York unveiling of ``Arcade,'' which struck me differently each of the three times I saw it: first as a study in sculptural pose and posture, then as a more kinetic exercise, and finally as a model of balance between movement and nonmovement.

How happy is Cunningham that his new ``Grange Eve'' has been pinpointed by critics as a rural romp with autobiographical overtones? Perhaps not very, since so many of his works speak by indirection, with few obvious ``real life'' references. But then again, he has virtually asked for such analysis by populating the dance with such comfortably recognizable gestures and characterizations.

Is the grand old master of indeterminacy starting to mellow out? Will future works continue to charm us with affable reminiscences from a fondly remembered past? For the answer, stay tuned to one of the most illustrious careers in modern dance.

After touring in Europe during the next few weeks, the troupe will make its next American appearances in June at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C.

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