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September 2010

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Juilliard Dance

Published: September 2, 2010
Category: history

Introduction to Lucinda Childs'

By Rachel Straus

When Dance by Lucinda Childs, Philip Glass, and Sol LeWitt premiered in Amsterdam in 1979, it drew immediate controversy. Glass heard one disgruntled audience member say, “This is not dance!” Others just hissed and booed. Given conventional expectations about dance performances in high art theaters, these responses weren’t surprising. It wasn’t the first time that a premiere riled an audience. In 1913 Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring caused people to riot. Today Rite is sacrosanct. It is viewed as a masterpiece. The same goes for Dance.

Dance has no story, no characters or virtuoso divertissements. Yet it drives forward like a spaceship skimming the horizon. What makes it feel futuristic is its swiftly-moving streams of refined movement. What makes it classical is its mining of ballet’s 400-year-old tradition based on traveling steps and bodily fluidity. The choreography, music and film décor in Dance are as masterfully integrated as the mise-en-scène in Rite of Spring. And like RiteDance offers audiences (in 1979 and today) new ways of seeing ballet-trained dancers move in a proscenium space.

Childs created her first full-length work after touring for two years as a soloist in the five-hour opera Einstein on the Beach. Philip Glass, the opera’s composer, wished to work with her on another project. Glass recognized that Childs enriched the glacially shifting harmonies of his minimalist score. Her approach, where she stripped ballet steps of their baroque details and emphasized their rhythmic qualities, bore great resemblence to his compositional approach. When Glass composed Dance, Childs studied its five, 20-minute sections like a mathematician. She then created her own score, which on paper resembles a thesis of shifting arcs and planes.

In her Soho studio in downtown New York, Childs devised on her body phrases composed of glides, turns and loping steps. Their seemless trajectories resemble jet trails. These phrases often overlap Glass’s intervals with different counts to create subtle dissonances. The result is a break with the conventional one-to-one musical-choreographic relationship. David Wolfe, an original cast member, described the experience of performing Dance as “terrifying and exhilarating” because “if you make the slightest mistake the piece is ruined.”

Wolfe’s daunting description of performing Dance not only refers to counting Glass’s music and undertaking Childs’s fleet-footed, myriad crossings. It refers to Sol LeWitt’s film, which is projected on a proscenium-size, translucent scrim at the lip of the stage. In the film, the dancers perform the exact same movement as their living counterparts. But LeWitt did more than create a simultaneoulsy occuring film design. He shot Childs’s choreography from different perspectives: above, in close up, and off-center; so that one’s eyes float and turn with his camera. The feeling is like dancing; one flies through the arriving and departing dancers. The theater begins to whirl like a spaceship.

While the audience is given this thrill, the dancers walk (and run) a tight rope. They must perform in perfect correspondence to their filmed counterparts. They chase their cinemagraphic selves, who often appear bigger or brighter or both. The filmed dancers sometimes materialize like giant phantoms. They hover around the mortal ones. The effect brings to mind Willliam Butler Yeats’s famous line, “How can we tell the Dancer from the Dance?” But in this case, the more appropriate question would be, how do we differentiate the dancer from his/her digital representation? Which is more entrancing: the person or the simulacra? And so Dance does benefit from an age-old convention. It proposes a narrative, albeit one with a very philosophical bent.

Thirty years ago Child’s first full-length work was described in the New Yorker as a “prehistoric ballet.” Like a ballet paleontologist, Childs excavated ballet’s ethos—its stretched limbs, its angelic ease. Childs dug into the ballet’s basic grammar—chassé, changé, chaîné—to illuminate its fundamental beauty. Unsurprisingly, Childs’s career since Dance has involved making work for ballet companies on a quest to expand their artform. For her efforts the French government in 2004 awarded her their Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Dance today looks differently than when it received its premiere. Through a new set of dancers, who perform alongside those filmed in 1979, the work bears witness to the evolution of dance technique. The 2010 dancers have greater attack. They move with more strength and precision. Like a moving palimpsest, the dancers of today revitalize the performers movements from 30 years ago. The Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran could have been describing this powerful experience when he wrote: “Time has been transformed, and we have changed; it has advanced and set us in motion; it has unveiled its face, inspiring us with bewilderment and exhilaration.”

See the article at the White Bird Festival website



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