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In New 'Biped,' Cunningham Sculpts Movements From Flesh and Frolicsome Light


Motion-capture animation is a process that allows digital artists to change passages of dance movement into disembodied imagery: the humans that performed the movement reduced to mere skeletal outlines or a dangle of dots or a smear of energy across a screen.

Projected onto a gauze scrim at the front of the stage, and supplemented with other computer-generated effects, it has become a layer of moving decor in a fascinating new Merce Cunningham dance called "Biped," given its local premiere by the Cunningham company on Friday at the Alex Theatre in Glendale.

Dressed in gleaming, pewter-colored body suits by Suzanne Gallo that leave their arms and legs bare, the 14 dancers materialize out of the void at the back of the stage into zones of light defined so strongly by Aaron Copp that the usual letdown of watching dancers behind a scrim never occurs. And, of course, when digital artists Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser unleash cascades of giant toothpicks, or galaxies of polka-dots or the visits of enormous animated figures doing complex Cunningham choreography, the need for that scrim becomes unquestionable.

Mostly realized in dull yellow and royal blue, the projections complement a moody, atmospheric score by Gavin Bryars, partly recorded and partly live. Any sense of a technological stunt is neutralized by this dark, flowing accompaniment and also by the independence of the dance itself. In the past, Cunningham has commissioned music and backdrops without knowing what they'd be--or how they'd impact his choreography--until the final rehearsals. This time, the projections may use movement he designed, but the pace and density of that movement never duplicates the dance tempos or structures on the stage itself: the main event here.

Those structures increasingly involve phalanxes of women doing slow balances in extension: most often in groups of five, but also three and six, creating not merely a motif but a kind of force field in the work. The men keep rushing in to partner them or dress them in filmy gray shifts, but it's the look of these women bending and reaching in Cunningham's long-limbed, neo-balletic style that forms the strongest link to the linear emphasis of the animation designs.

Just before the world premiere of "Biped" a year ago, local audiences saw Canadian theater artists Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon fuse experimental projection technology with choreography by Ginette Prevost in "Orfeo" at the Carpenter Center, allowing members of the cast to interact with moving three-dimensional figures in a manner that "Biped" never attempts spatially or expressively.

So, rather than fully embracing state-of-the-art virtual dance, what Cunningham does is arguably more conservative: using computer animation technology as a kind of prism through which stage dancing acquires new facets and opportunities for counterpoint.

To complete the evening, Cunningham mounts a 40-minute version of his familiar but ever-changing "Event" compilations in which sections of various works merge in a free-form suite. On Friday, the components included "Changing Steps," "Locale 1," "Installations" and "Scramble," with sudden blackouts and silences setting off the bleak, dark "Winterbranch" dances--unusual, since Cunningham events usually unfold seamlessly.

In front of the same panoramic Robert Rauschenberg canvas used by the company in its full-evening event at the Alex three years ago, the recurring sight of four men partnering a single woman (and often one another) sets off resonances, as if Cunningham were resituating the Rose Adagio from "The Sleeping Beauty" against a collage of contemporary visual art and sound.

Frequently abrasive and even explosive, that sound comes from three musicians in the pit--Takehisa Kosugi, Paul De Marinis and Loren Kiyoshi Dempster--who sometimes seem to be bombarding the elegant sculptural groups the dancers continually assume in the brighter, outer sections.

In the "Winterbranch" sequence however, the accompaniment supports the sense of people slogging through endless night, often collapsing backward to be carried across someone's back or slung along the floor like heavy baggage. If "Biped" delights the child in us with the notion of technology-as-plaything, it's the grim, adult "Winterbranch" view of modern relationships as anonymous and oppressive that could well outlast all the high-tech bells and whistles.

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