Last night I saw Merce Cunningham and his ten

amazing dancers dancing for eighty minutes without

a break in the college gym. I am trying to tell you how it was

but of course there are no words

for being wholly enclosed in a space,

a tight cocoon without chinks

so none of the wonder will leak out.

From "Merce Cunningham and the Birds," by Lisel Mueller

After 11 1/2 years, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company is returning to the Washington area. For Friday and Saturday nights only, this choreographic iconoclast and his ensemble of dancers and musicians will flood the University of Maryland's Tawes Theater with layer upon layer of complex movement and sound.

For more than 30 years, Cunningham has taught people how to look at and listen to art in new, open-minded ways. His dances are the most revolutionary sort: those that exist independent of music, plot and stage decor. His works are about shape, line, limbs, breaths, colors, speed and stasis; the burden of "meaning" has no place in this world. Rather than play a role, the Cunningham dancer plays himself. There is no "center stage," no lesser spatial domain; those cool, angular swatches of movement burst forth from the farthest corner, the least predictable spot. This is dance unbound but infused with intelligence.

Cunningham, 62, has never grown complacent or stale. "I prefer working on new dances," he explained. "Sometimes I revive my old dances to see if I can still stand them. . . . Our work has been around long enough so that a lot of what we do is familiar. What was once a risk in terms of the public is not now a risk."

Cunningham has noticed a change in the dancers as well: They're "far more drastically trained," he said. "It's hard to get them now to be awkward. I think it's a very interesting quality to look for, though."

It was Cunningham's acquaintance with composer John Cage, dating from 1944, that set him off on his delvings into the unknown. Cunningham, who was born in Centralia, Wash., trained in tap and ballroom, was discovered by Martha Graham and danced in her company for six years.

But he started applying Cage's notion of chance operations to his own work and carved out the celebrated "Cunningham technique": derived from yoga, the curved Graham back, extended legs of the classical ballet and his own freeing of the spine and upper torso.

When the original Cunningham troupe hit the early 1950s dance scene, a generation of artists and art devotees crowned Cage and Cunningham their gurus. Next came the astonishing collaborations with a veritable who's-who of the avant-garde: Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, David Tudor, Christian Wolff, Morton Feldman and many others. Most recently, the choreographer has focused his attention on film and video, creating (along with Charles Atlas) a small collection of dance films and video dances that have changed the look of both these media. . . . even their silences prefigure shifts already known to the muscles and how none leads or follows how each moves to the authority of its brain its autonomous body

The Cunningham company's appearance here next weekend is certainly an event; in fact, the two evenings of dancing and music are called "Events." An Event can be performed anywhere -- gymnasium, art gallery, forest, conventional proscenium stage -- and unfolds in one great, intermissionless stream.

That stream is made up of a whole collection of movement fragments: a duet from an old work, a new solo for the grounded (because of arthritis) Cunningham, a sound score quickly fashioned for a specific performance environment (those familiar with the Cunningham repertoire have a good time identifying these fragments; it's the same game film buffs play when they find the cinematic references certain directors conceal in their works). The dancers wear their Event garb, four or five layers of leotards, tights, shirts and other raiments that they put on and discard at various junctures. Spectators may come and go as they deem fit.

What advice does Cunningham give to the first-time Event-goer? "Act like a tourist and look at what you're looking at," he said in a voice both calm and droll. "If you go with a preconceived idea, say, to Yellowstone National Park, and expect it to look like Washington Square because it's also a park, it's just not going to work. People are preconditioned to think about the theater in certain ways, and an Event may change your mind about things. . . . When I go to see something unfamiliar -- for example, a kind of ethnic dancing I've never seen before -- I don't get upset. I know that the structure is strange, and the music is odd, but I look and listen as best I can."

Although the Event format is, as far as an audience goes, a relatively wide-open one, it's hard to picture restless Washington-area spectators leaving their seats and roaming Tawes Theater in the midst of a performance. Haven't we been taught to "behave" once the lights go down and the curtain goes up?

"That depends on the architecture of the performing space," Cunningham explained. "In a space like Westbeth the company's New York studio , it would be difficult to weave and wander around, not because of any rule, but because of the limited space. . . . And then several years ago, when we did Events at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, we performed in a large pit. At one end of it were seats for 300, and people could also watch us from above. Every night there were more of them -- at one point several thousand, all different sorts of people -- and they didn't move. I was totally unprepared; under that circumstance where they could have moved around, they didn't."

Can the average spectator, accustomed to four or five distinct dances in a program, plus a minimum of one intermission, withstand one hour and 20 minutes of nonstop, abstract sound and motion? And what about the performers? Merce Cunningham, the man who times his dances down to the second with a stopwatch, has thought it out thoroughly:

"I go on the assumption that an Event will last 80 minutes because even two hours is very hard on the dancers. If I had a company of 500 dancers, we could do a 12-hour Event. And I think, in general, that audience concentration is one-hour-and-a-half, the same as a feature length film. Our work is so detailed that even 90 minutes is too much for some people." Then he laughed a soft, wry laugh. "Well, if we go on for a long, long time we can have a picnic in between." perpetual proof that the world is energy, that to land in a certain space at a certain time is being alive. Watch how they manage to keep it up till each soul is fed and then disappear into nowhere.