Justin Tornow is one of the area’s stronger dancers and choreographers, and she teams her company, COMPANY, with an intriguing musical duo for works that carry the Merce Cunningham/John Cage methods into the 21st century, albeit at a smaller scale. COMPANY’s performance in the Kenan Rehearsal Hall of the Kenan Music Building at UNC-CH on March 5, in tandem with MW Duo on saxophone and electronica, was delightful.

Part of the wonderful Process Series, which helps develop new performance art across boundaries, The Lowest Form of Poetry is more developed than some of the Process Series works. It’s a mere 30 minutes long, yet it feels complete – and indeed, it expands within the receiving mind in a way that would have made any additional work on the program superfluous. We set great store on originality, yet there is much value in following the path breakers. Although there were no images of digging and sifting in this dance, it might make you think of archeology, with its careful examination of fragments, and delicate expansion of the digging area. Tornow works in the field Cunningham opened, and by the light of her former teacher, the late Jan Van Dyke at UNC Greensboro (where Tornow now teaches). In fact, all of COMPANY’s dancers have that UNCG connection, which makes them a particularly cohesive group.

Matthew McClure and Lee Weisert, who comprise MW Duo, both teach at UNC Chapel Hill. McClure plays the saxophone, and Weisert makes highly textured electronic soundscapes with found and created sounds. For The Lowest Form of Poetry, they set up a laser beam field through which the dancers move, and (somehow) programmed it so that when the beams are interrupted by the bodies, sound is generated electronically. The basis for these sounds, initially blips and boops, is a recording of Merce Cunningham reading from his written composition, Space, Time and Dance. So, initially, the dance seemed to instigate the sound. But gradually, the sounds gained strength, began to cohere – the rich saxophone gathering and binding them – and took on a life independent of the dance. As in so much of Cunningham and Cage’s work, the dance and the music are interconnected, but not interdependent. As the dancers moved in their own crisp patterns through the laser beams, they caught flashes of red here and there. This secondary dance of unembodied red dots in space kept one track of the viewer’s mind firmly on the relationship between randomness and order, even while adding a layer of logic-defying magic to the overall visual.

The lasers were red, but the overall lighting in the room was blue. This was not a theater – there was no stage or stage lighting – but a large open room with a high ceiling and wood floor. The audience faced itself across the performance space, while the laser arrays lined up across the two ends, the individual units stood at various heights. They generated a sense of danger – the dancers moved in the crossfire – but the cool blue lights coming in high and low from both sides, created a peaceful evening twilight. The dancers wore gleaming Lycra bodysuits (very Merce) that caught the light and glow, and the lights were sharp enough that the dancers cast shadows that seemed more substantial than their bodies.

There was some fine dancing on March 5th, especially by Tornow, who has a charismatic presence and beautiful alignment, not only with herself and the room, but with pure geometry. Vertical spine, horizontal arm or leg, dazzling diagonal extension, all her steps closing and opening with succinct exactitude, these speak to the unambiguous truths of physical geometry. But then there were the little scurries and flurries of leaps that interject the random unknown into the set order. Tornow has a very good grasp on the essential crux of the Cunningham way. Emily Aiken also stood out on the 5th, but in work like this a strong ensemble is necessary, and Amy Blakely, Austin Dixon and Sam Steffen all performed cleanly, each having some standout moments.

The manipulated word fragments eventually came together into surprisingly poignant phrases and sentences, the final sound a summation of all that has gone before. I’m not much on this kind of intellectual game, but when it makes real poetry, it’s wonderful. I left the room feeling buoyed, happy, serene; and the next day, I’m still feeling that lovely blue magic.

The Lowest Form of Poetry repeats March 6 only. See our sidebar for details.