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Summer Dance

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

One of the most magical theatrical experiences of the last few seasons was the Merce Cunningham Dance Company-s residency at UCLA Live! a few years back. The one work in particular that continues to linger in my memory was a dance piece entitled &quotHow; to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run."

There was no music accompanying this ballet--no, instead of music, the handful of dancers performed as Mr. Cunningham and a few associates simply read aloud from the prose writings of composer John Cage. It sounds almost absurd, and yet the dancing was no less beautiful than if it had been accompanied by the most luscious Tchaikovsky melody.

Two recent performances brought memories of that evening-s performance to mind. One was the recent show The Play Without Words. Like Cunningham-s Dance Without Music, Mathew Bourne-s theater piece/ballet aimed to show how movement can be engaging and beautiful, even without the traditional trappings of dance theater.

But why then was The Play Without Words such a disappointment? Bourne-s work received raves in London and New York, but seeing it here at the Ahmanson was entirely underwhelming. Yes, there were a few nice sequences: one where a butler helps an english gentleman get dressed and undressed, and another featuring a sexy frolic between a man and woman on a kitchen table--but as a whole, Bourne-s contraption seemed like a gimmick. Like his Nutcracker (seen here last winter) The Play Without Words was a tepid blend of dance and theater that managed to make take the excitement out of both art forms.

Last month, a few weeks after The Play Without Words left town, the Merce Cunningham troupe returned to L.A. and took over the same Ahmanson stage that Bourne-s piece had previously occupied. Once again, Mr. Cunningham dazzled with a program as innovative as it was beautiful. Instead of choreographing a work without music, this time he set two dances to songs by the rock bands Sigur Ros and Radiohead. But before each performance, Cunningham would preside over a dice roll to determine the lighting, choreography, music, and other details. By doing this, Cunningham called attention to the role of chance in live performance, and subtly forced the audience to appreciate the ephemeral nature of the stage.

Sadly, Cunningham-s Split Sides was here for only a weekend. I went back twice and would happily go again, as each time--thanks to the roll of the dice--it was a different experience.

But even as these shows are gone, dance is still very much in the air--as both movie theaters and televisions screens are awash in dance related projects. Mad Hot Ballroom, a Spellbound-like documentary chronicling a New York high school dance competition, has become an art-house sensation; and on television, the show Dancing with the Stars has been a surprise hit over the past few weeks. The show is a sort of American Idol rip-off, where a celebrity guest is paired with a professional dancer. Of course, since it-s a reality show, each week one of these pairs is eliminated.

This week a new documentary opens which charts the evolution of a Los Angeles dance phenomenon. David LaChapelle-s Rize opens the door on the South Central-based dance movement known as &quotKrumping.;" Angelenos who find this film fascinating are in for a treat, as live Krumping can be seen at Tommy The Clown-s Battle Night, which takes place each month at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Culver City.

And finally, dance fans wanting something more traditional can make their way to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion this weekend to enjoy a good, old-fashioned, Russian story ballet. Tonight, the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg begins a four performance run of Anna Karenina. Of course, Mr. Eifman-s choreography is anything but traditional, but since he uses music, a story, and no roll of the dice, the event--if not the dancing--just sort of seems that way.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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