In the early 1990s, Merce Cunningham began to use computer software as a preliminary stage in the choreographic process, eventually transferring or adapting for his dancers the moves he originated with animated figures.
This new way of working created a major shift in his technique -- one made especially clear at the Ahmanson Theatre on Saturday, when the Cunningham company performed a piece from 1987 on the same two-part program as one from 2003.
Marked by many, many points of contact with ballet technique, "Fabrications" (the earlier work) featured movement that radiated from a central core in the body, stretching along the spine out to the toes and fingertips.
In contrast, "Split Sides" featured spasms of movement here, there and everywhere: unpredictable muscular pulses and limb actions that had their own inner logic, but most often used the body as a launching platform for isolated effects.
Except for Robert Swinston -- dancing his original role in "Fabrications" -- the current members of Cunningham's company all joined after his conversion to computer choreography. But they looked completely at home in his fluid former style.
Plotless but atmospheric, "Fabrications" began with a rapt duet by Holley Farmer and Daniel Squire on the right, juxtaposed with a cluster of women on the left: a relationship seen as part of (but slightly apart from) a community. Dressed in stylized street wear designed by Dove Bradshaw, the dancers looked relaxed and comfortable in their happy, conversational exchanges of steps: individuals sooner or later contentedly merging with the ensemble.
You might imagine them to be living in a small town somewhere. Indeed, at one point, Jeannie Steele and Cedric Andrieux reclined to watch the others: Saturday night with nothing to do but hang out.
Punctuated by periods of silence, the score by Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimento hid hints of voices and music under an evolving drone. Bradshaw's backdrop looked like a schematic drawing tracing the similarities between human innards and the internal combustion engine.
As for the previously reviewed "Split Sides," it again found members of the audience deciding the sequencing of music, dance, decor, costumes and lighting through rolls of the dice. What had been Part 1 on Thursday, for example, was now Part 2 -- with all the other switcheroos helping to heighten or mute aspects of the choreography.
Certain arm moves now looked sharper when performed in sleeveless tops, for instance, just as some of the steps softened when danced in loose trousers. But the level of virtuosity remained so high, the dancers so unfailingly immersed (im-Merced?) and liberated in their visionary technical opportunities and challenges that -- who knows? -- the piece might look even better in a nude, unaccompanied bare-stage version under sunlight.
Maybe next year, with the right dice ...