IN its nearly 40 years of existence, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company has gone through many changes, but it's probably never looked better than in its spring season at City Center. The dancers are still the cleanest and clearest interpreters of choreography, and Cunningham is still going strong creatively. So there's a lot they can show us, including their own individual spirits. Amazingly, the company has neither sunk into routine nor acquired any of the ornateness and fake sentiment so many dancers today use to seduce the audience. Cunningham has always insisted on a kind of objectivity from his dancers, a transparency. The doing of the dance is what produces expression. In the recent past, the dancers could be dry and tense, but during the two-week season, which ended March 27, everyone seemed looser, suppler, happier.
It occurs to me that one reason things looked more serene was that the company composers, principally John Cage, David Tudor, and Michael Pugliese in the recent works, have discarded the abusive extremes of noise that they used to experiment with. I don't mind the dancers not dancing to the music, but I do prefer peaceful aural atmospheres to shattering ones. Sounds accompanying the dances I saw were mostly muted - soothing synthesizer ostinatos with rippling bleeps, whispered words, or low rumblings like distant thunderstorms.
David Tudor's thundery music accompanied one of three new works, ``Polarity.'' With seven dancers dressed in William Anastasi's silver-streaked black jumpsuits, the dance seemed a formal study of contrasting movements. Two or three dancers would be standing in strange, jagged postures or moving very slowly, while another more active small group counterpointed them. Kimberly Bartosik and Jenifer Weaver circled into an embrace, with their back legs completing the wrap. Later, Larissa McGoldrick and Emma Diamond joined together in a similar way, and Michael Cole dove between them, slicing them apart. Cole and David Kulick stood very close together for a long time at the beginning of the dance, each skewed off balance in a different way, their hands jutting oddly like something in an Expressionist painting. Suddenly the space behind them was filled with other dancers running, stumbling, running.
People supported and balanced each other, usually in awkward or difficult ways. Several people ran in carrying Bartosik headfirst, like a battering ram. Men steadied leaning women by holding a bicep or grasping a hand. A woman draped herself over a man's stiffened forearm (Robert Wood) while he rotated his hip or shoulder. A trio began hopping fast in circles, one person set off by the other's agitation.
``Polarity'' looked a little eccentric, and more sculptural than a lot of recent Cunningham dances. I thought it was because he made it for the most recent arrivals in the company. At another performance, however, the cast was made up of senior members.
The other new dance I saw, ``August Pace,'' was for everybody, including Randall Sanderson, just moved up from understudy. A series of duets of great variety, it showed off the individual and partnering qualities of the dancers, with a pleasingly energetic score by Michael Pugliese for overlapping riffs on soft percussion instruments - drums, rattles, bamboo with pebbles inside, and sitar with bells.
Victoria Finlayson and Robert Swinston began the dance, sweeping in all directions, as if with their eyes and their limbs they were clearing out the space. They darted at and around one another, achieving balances and shooting off them. Robert Wood hoisted Helen Barrow straight upside down, and she leaned against his back as if this didn't faze her at all. Patricia Lent dove headlong at Alan Good, letting her whole weight sail through space, confident that he would save her from disaster. Kimberly Bartosik and Chris Komar sparred playfully in a game where they traded leading and following roles.
Cunningham's inventiveness in duets seems endless, but not the least interesting thing about ``August Pace'' was the occasional witty counterpoint provided by passing groups of dancers, each group repeating one intricately meshing movement pattern.
Cunningham himself didn't appear in the new dances, and I was relieved. But his stage presence can create unforgettable images. Toward the end of ``Pictures'' (1984), while eight or nine dancers were doing a combination, he crossed behind them, one careful step at a time. By the time he got to the other side, it seemed a tremendous interval had elapsed and the younger dancers were no longer the same as they had been before. And they would never be the same again.