MERCE CUNNINGHAM, choreographer and iconoclast extraordinaire, is an artist who seems to create by force of some inner calculus. His philosophies and practices as a modern dancemaker resemble the esoteric notations of physicists bent on discovering new theories of chaos abroad in the universe. Cunningham is, of course, a dancer's dancer, but, too, he is an innately scientific one, parsing out steps, bodies, arms, legs, torsos and heads with exactitude.
Cunningham, 85, thrives on indeterminacy -- at his Lower Manhattan studio, Westbeth, and on the road with his troupe of 14 dancers. In his studio laboratory, year after year, he invents steps, phrases, body positions and floor patterns that resemble structures of atomic isotopes in their complex linkages. He has even taken to using a computer program, DanceForms, to choreograph, devising movements, spatial relationships and positions on the computer before he teaches them to his dancers in rehearsal. And his choreography is always created independently of its music, costume, scenic and lighting design.
When the Merce Cunningham Dance Company returns to the area for three nights at the Kay Theatre in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, it's not the theories and the processes that will draw people to this modernist's masterful works. It's the legendary idea that the unexpected will reign on stage.
For Cunningham doesn't merely take chances with his dance, he makes dances using chance. On Wednesday, when the company performs last year's "Split Sides," the dancers will have just rehearsed it one time on the Kay stage, earlier in the afternoon, following the roll of a die that determines the order of the two 20-minute sections. That night, on stage, another series of die rolls will take place before the audience to determine the order of the score -- the rock music of Radiohead and the Icelandic band Sigur Ros -- and which costumes, stage decor and lighting will be used.
"We work that way all that time," says veteran Cunningham dancer and rehearsal director Robert Swinston, who has been with the company since 1980, sounding via telephone as if he just shrugged. "We change our order, our front, change the way we face and do the same movement. That's part of Merce's idea that there are different points in space and, as you look at it, wherever the dancer is standing is his front rather than the audience being the front all the time."
He continues, pinpointing one groundbreaking Cunningham theory: "You see, there are no fixed points in space, so the back corner can be as much of a front as facing the audience. It changes the way the audience sees the movement, instead of seeing dancers facing them all the time."
Long-limbed Andrea Weber, a Stafford, Va., native who joined the company in January, admits to still assimilating the complexities of the technique. "I love that it's such a fun thing to be out there and have it different every night. Merce will roll the die either in the morning or the night before. Everything else is done on the spur of the moment. It's fantastic," she says.
In addition to "Split Sides," the program's other work, "Ground Level Overlay," is dedicated to lifelong Cunningham collaborator and partner John Cage. Cage's music, too, broke new ground with its found sounds, silences and use of the distorted, arrhythmic and unmelodic in his scores. For the work, composer Stuart Dempster recorded 10 trombonists in a 2 million-gallon water cistern in Washington state and discovered the reverberations lasted 45 seconds.
The dance, affectionately tagged "GLO" by company members, is about "a certain kind of community," Swinston says. "It has a certain ritualistic quality and sensuality in the movements and, I would say, a certain strong passion, although it's not specific. The central duet, I can call it a love duet, it's sort of like a love duet . . . not really representational." But Swinston allows that Cunningham speaking about the same piece invariably would say, "The dance is what it is. Just watch it." Swinston adds, "Merce leaves it open for you, the audience, to finish the choreography, to complete it with your own thoughts. He welcomes anybody's ideas, but it's their ideas."
MERCE CUNNINGHAM DANCE COMPANY -- Wednesday through Sept. 10 at 8. Kay Theatre, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland, College Park. 301-405-2787.