Almost 60 years ago, Merce Cunningham stepped onstage as the second male dancer ever in Martha Graham's company. The Lincoln Center Festival celebrates his career with four performances by his own troupe, at the New York State Theater Wednesday through Sunday.

For BIPED, a local premiere, computer-generated three- dimensional models of moving dancers were manipulated by computer-graphic artists Paul Kaiser and Shelly Eshkal, producing images of movement reminiscent of Chinese brush drawing. A body is suggested, or a skeleton, or a performer disassociating into strands which continue to dance, projected on a scrim in front of, and a screen behind, the dancers. In keeping with Cunningham's views on the independence of music, decor, and movement (his dancers often hear the music to which they will perform for the first time at dress rehearsal, or even on opening night), the projections will not follow what the dancers are doing onstage. "The order in which it falls does not relate. If it does, it's coincidental, and that's fine," says the choreographer.

Although he performed with his troupe well into his seventies, Cunningham has not appeared onstage for several years. He'll dance with Mikhail Baryshnikov in a world premiere, aptly named Occasion Piece, which recycles a set designed by Jasper Johns for an earlier work, Walkaround Time. "It's unknown to most people in New York," Cunningham explains, "and I thought we could use it because I think it's one of the more beautiful sets of the 20th century."

About what is only his third performance at the State Theater in its 35-year history, Cunningham says, "It's a dance stage." But about its floor: "My dancers can do things on Marley floors that they couldn't before. But I understand that ballet companies do to Marley what they do with any floor; they put rosin on it." Despite the problem they may have with turning, his artists deserve a stage of a size appropriate to his place in dance history.

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