Unlike his collaborator John Cage, Merce Cunningham doesn't explain his work. He just keeps making dances, and leaves it to the audience to figure out where they come from. The interesting thing is how individual they appear, even though they all start out as open-field situations - without plots, characters, or even conventional choreographic agendas. The one exception to this situation is the ``outsider'' role that Cunningham himself has taken in several recent pieces.
Cunningham, whose own dancing is now more limited in movement than in years past, retains the riveting theatrical intensity he's always had onstage. He's trying to work out ways to have a logical dancing relationship to the 14 young technical whizzes in his company.
In ``Fabrications,'' one of three new works shown in his too-brief series at City Center, he's first seen clumping across the background, like a moose in a field of antelopes. At different times later on, he partners one of the women, does a mostly gestural dance alone in silence, and dances at the end of a line of men who all do different fast, busy sequences at the same time.
In all these guises, he looks like what he is, a veteran who can no longer do what he used to but who must find reasons to perform. For some reason, in ``Fabrications'' this doesn't seem sad, though in other dances, the 1982 ``Quartet,'' for instance, the same situation is filled with pathos.
``Fabrications'' uses elements of the classical vocabulary that I don't think Cunningham has ever examined so deeply. His dance is frequently considered balletic, but I've had this impression mainly from the carriage of his dancers' upper bodies and the positioning of the legs - turned out and with lots of spring and attack.
In ``Fabrications'' he goes way beyond these basics, using steps and turns that require large leg gestures, leaps that travel across space, intricate foot patterns, and even barefoot pirouettes with formal preparations.
The dance also has some circular floor patterns that seem created entirely for reasons of design, another unusual feature in Cunningham's work
Cunningham's interest in ballet goes way back, probably all the way - he taught and choreographed for the New York City Ballet in the '40s. But with his own dancers this affinity has shown up mainly as antithesis. The way they behave recalls ballet to your mind while at the same time presenting a beguiling alternative.
``Septet'' (1953), one of Cunningham's most beautiful early works, was revived this season and demonstrates both how formal but spiked with contrariness his sensibility was from the beginning.
A work for six dancers, despite its title, ``Septet'' is about expectations fulfilled and thwarted. There are duets and solos and a dance for the three couples arranged in a double line pattern, like a contradance.
Robert Swinston partners Kristy Santimyer in a slow adagio where, instead of balancing and spreading out in beautiful lines as in a classical duet, she rests her whole body sensually against his, and he tilts her down almost to the ground instead of lifting her in the air.
Later he supports all three women in a series of references to Balanchine's ``Apollo.'' And the dance ends with a line dance of possible Grecian-urn derivation, except there's always one person out of sync with the group's hand-holding, sidestepping pattern.
``Septet'' looks classical, too, because of its calm execution; the dancers never seem fazed by the eccentricities of what they're doing, or by the unusual fact that they're dancing to the music, Erik Satie's ``Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear.'' For us and them, it's extremely rare to experience a Cunningham dance in which movement and sound are in complete accord.
I saw ``Fabrications'' after ``Septet'' at one performance, and, though I could see how balletic the latter piece was, as it went on it seemed to become less and less so. I decided rhythm was the reason. In ``Fabrications,'' a sustained, synthesized sound (by Emanuel de Melo Pimenta) is heard under random radio voices, and later emerges by itself.
As the dance ends, all the dancers are onstage, slowly sitting and rising, sitting and rising, to their own inner timings. It's not really their movements but their rhythmic singularity that tells you this could never be a ballet.
After the City Center season, the company will tour the Midwest and the West Coast later this month and in April.