Cruising the Internet, you can find the story of a woman named Frances Benn Hall, who headed to New York in the early 1940s. "In those lean years, the Village still thronged with starving artists," she wrote. "Finding housing was easy. I quickly moved into the front room of a basement apartment on West 13th Street, where my rent was $6 a week. I shared the kitchen and bath with two dancers from Martha Graham's group. One had a tiny maid's room in the back, and the other, Merce Cunningham, slept on a cot in the communal kitchen." As if she were looking through a peephole in the door of the downtown art scene of the time, Hall underscores the effortless collectivity that emerged from the necessity of getting by as artists during the war years. But what's especially apt, given Merce Cunningham Dance Company's arrival this week, and his age (84), is its private glimpse of a versatile, questing Merce. "He worked at his dancing like a demon, but he did find time to join, with me, a Village theatre group called the Bendukov Theatre Studio, to which we went evenings to work on ... exotic plays such as Cummings' him and Byron's Cain." Sounds every bit like the same man who produced "Bi-ped" and "Interscape," two of his recent works that will be reprised this weekend. At a point in life when many choreographers have given up decades earlier, Cunningham has continued to explore the medium, learning how to manipulate the human form on the computer, then turning and pushing the body to simulate the strange, almost impossible shapes he has devised. With their odd, Egyptian-frieze arms, their intergalactic feel, decor using motion-capture technology, and, most important, their assertion of the supra-human as a means to portray what is most deeply and mysteriously human, these works are the dance equivalent of short wave radio: they send us signals from all over, letting us tune in where we want -- or not, as the feeling moves us.
Cal Performances presents the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley. Tickets: $26-$46, from 510-642-9988 or CalPerfs.Berkeley.edu --Ann Murphy
L.A. plays itself
Here's an idea for a change-of-pace book or documentary topic: Hollywood as a sweet, wholesome, congenial place, where the community pulls together to solve its problems and all interpersonal relations and business dealings are open and honorable. Snort, uh-huh, right. You'll never make any money with that concept. Ask Helen Knode. The LA author is making the rounds with her latest novel, The Ticket Out. It's about the no-good-dirty-rotten film industry, as seen by a movie critic looking to break into showbiz in the worst way. Say, there might be something there after all. Knode's husband and colleague James Ellroy, who knows a little about soft white underbellies himself, referees her reading Tuesday night (7:30) at Cody's on Telegraph, Berkeley. More info: CodysBooks.com -- Kelly Vance
Hello young lovers, wherever you are -- and older ones, too. Come listen to tales of sweet love, flaming lust, and all the colors in between when Aurora Stories celebrates the impending Valentine's Day holiday in high literary style. In the past, the Aurora Theatre Company series has featured readings from works by Michael Chabon, Isabel Allende, and Martin Cruz Smith. This Monday at 7:30 p.m. in Aurora's new space (2081 Addison St., Berkeley), Bay Area acting luminaries Julie Eccles, Colin Thompson, and Crystal McCreary read stories by Katherine Heiny, Edith Wharton, and Woody Allen. Admission is free, but a $20 donation is suggested. Info: 510-843-4822 or AuroraTheatre.org -- Stefanie Kalem
Now in its 27th season, the Dallas Black Dance Theatre is Dallas' oldest continuously operating dance company. The company, which mixes up modern, jazz, African, and spiritual works, "goes for the beat, the thrust and overall excitement of Jazz dance-magnetic presence," said The New York Times. The DBDT has graced the stages of the Kennedy, the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, and Lincoln Center -- and tonight it adds the Knox Center for the Performing Arts to that list. The Knox Center is located on the Contra Costa College campus, entrance of El Portal Dr. and Castro St., San Pablo. Admission is on a donations-accepted basis. 510-235-7800. -- Stefanie Kalem