DANCE / Enter genius: Judith Mackrell on Merce Cunningham in Edinburgh

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ENTER, the title of Merce Cunningham's masterly hour-long dance work, performed last weekend at the Playhouse Theatre, Edinburgh, refers to the magic key that OKs all computer commands - an apt name for a piece of work where much of the movement has been invented on the figure that twirls across Cunningham's computer screen, courtesy of his own 'Life Forms' programme. But Enter is also the stage direction that activates character, action, climax and suspense. That too is apt for a piece which seems to contain the world - evoking street bustle and interiors, intimacy and danger, solemnity and wit.

The point of the computer is not to reduce choreography to some abstract game - dance-making for nerds - but to get a new angle on the human body. In Enter there are movements that seem more complicated, elusive and surprising than any he's ever made. An almost accidental shift in weight torques the body into a powerful zigzag; a jump that defies the usual rules for take-off turns into a beautifully lop-sided shape; balances that side step ordinary methods for support end up with limbs interlocking like planes of metal.

You could simply gawp at the dancing's infinite variety. But though there is no obvious story to tell, you find yourself weaving narratives through the images and ideas. David Tudor's score, which bounces round the theatre at peak decibel, is full of hooters, machines, twittering birds and heartbeats. At certain points a woman spreads her arms as if warding off its threat; at others it's just the everyday grind of the city, muffled behind windows and doors. Marsha Skinner's lighting, too, will sometimes bathe the dancers in a beatific glow, then expose them in stark light and shadow - as in the passage where seven women line up to watch four men perform their own separate dances, bearing mute witness to solitude - or death.

This moment echoes one of Cunningham's own appearances, where he stands apart watching his dancers perform brief, lonely monologues. But there's also intense sociability. Dancers enter in pairs, their legs swinging in accord, or they cross the stage in conversational swarms. The stage clears for one couple, whose legs twine round each other's in decorous embrace.

This tenderness and humanity is also evident in the programme's other work, Cargo X - a piece for seven dancers and a ladder. The ladder sets up a range of movement conceits - V-shaped arms and legs, odd cantilevered balances - but it's also the focus for the whole group who, in moments of lovely Cunningham eccentricity, attach flowers to its supports.

Cargo X has been seen in London but there are no plans to show Enter. In fact, this autumn's 'Dance Umbrella' has had to drop Cunningham and company due to lack of funds. With Mark Morris, Miami City Ballet and others, this has been a brilliantly memorable Festival for dance. London fans will be wondering sourly why they don't get invited to the party any more.