A Dance review

Dance - Lucinda Childs (1979)

Created in 1979 by Lucinda Childs to a music piece by minimalist composer Philip Glass, the piece Dance was remade in 2009 for a cast of 12 new dancers from the Lucinda Childs Dance Company. The piece displays in parallel with the live dancers a movie in its original 1979 version by renowned visual artist Sol LeWitt. This collaborative three-handed work is the most accomplished minimalist statement in performing arts. The music, the choreography and the movie are working as mirrors for one another which as a result magnifies their common characteristics. Together they are building a unique performance that one can receive as a mesmerizing perceptive experience. Resetting this piece 30 years after its creation enables us to witness evolution that may eventually give another insight into this masterpiece.

There is no stage set to the piece Dance but a screen onto which the movie is projected. It hangs at the front edge of the stage and covers its whole height and width, thus forming a box in which the dancers will perform. According to the lighting arrangements we can either see exclusively the stage, or exclusively the movie on screen or both at the same time in overprint. Similar to the 1979 show, the black-and-white movie by Sol LeWitt displays the original dancers performing the piece itself from various points of views: frontal at eye level or diagonal down, overhead, some travelling sideways and occasional stop-action stills. The images appear mostly on the full screen or are sometimes two at a time on a split-screen. Whenever the film is visible, the dance on stage and the dance on screen is the same. As a consequence it creates a visual counterpoint: it doubles the movement on a different space (plateau and screen) and a different time (live and recorded). The movie underlines the repetitiveness of the choreographic structure by offering various singular points of views on the same dance phrases. Allowing us to witness the space according to different angles, it creates a three-dimensional overview on the dance itself, in a similar way as unfolding the pattern of a cube into a single plane sheet of paper.

The music by Philip Glass came prior to the dance. Built in three parts, it is made of long repeated loops (and loops within the loops) with a high tempo using classical instruments and an organ. Lucinda Childs explains that she purposefully made the choreography after the music. She wholly embraced the looping architecture of the musical score and built dance phrases that repeat and overlap accordingly to it. They are composed of a limited vocabulary of small travelling steps, jumps, changes of directions, that stems from her previous choreography of the 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach. The movement is mostly about the steps so that arms gestures are kept very simple and in a balletic style. In parts I and III, all dancers are moving by couples -that remain unchanged throughout the piece. They are following specific geometric paths from one coulisse to the opposite and repeat them through the piece. Further and more complex patterns are adding progressively. There is no obvious dramaturgy to these parts. It starts and ends with the same sharpness whereas the flow in between runs continuous and uninterrupted. It feels as one single long suspended breath. And one can literally hear the audience gasp for air at the moment it ends.

The middle part of the piece is a 20 minute solo by a female dancer. It is introduced by a 20 second movie shot of Lucinda Childs herself standing still and watching at the camera. Then as she starts dancing, her only paths are a large circle around the centre and a line from the back to the front. The music provides also a never ending circumventing chromatic descent at its end. It makes us expect an end at any moment and surprises us each time the loop starts again. For these reasons this solo stands out from the rest of the dramaturgy of the piece. Thus it leaves the fields of imagination and interpretation open for the audience to speculate. One may seek a meaning, a story behind it. One may wonder who this woman –or priestess was. One may imagine.

This piece comes as a hypnotic experience. Variations of speed, switches of scales and alternating focus create a vortex in vision and hearing, a “perceptual overwhelming”[1]. As these shifting points of view appear on the screen, we are absorbed in the images and we tend to lose the perception of the real space we are in. It is a similar impression as when one keeps studying a long time on a computer screen or a white sheet of paper and then loses the feeling of gravity. Nobody in the audience coughed or moved in his chair. The space of the audience was suspended while that of the dancers was being multiplied, intensified.

In 2009, thirty years after its creation, Lucinda Childs reset her piece Dance with a cast of young dancers and has been touring with them since then. She decided however to keep the original 1979 movie by Sol LeWitt. Unlike at its creation, we now get to see different dancers on stage and on screen. We now witness a thirty year time gap that is made visible in at least the two following details: the first very striking discrepancy concerns the arms movements. On the original movie we can see that the arms are left absolutely free and unspecified. Every dancer deals with them in his own way through the steps. As a result, the arms gestures that we see on the video look rather messy. On the other hand, the live dancers of the 2009 performance have all the same exclusively balletic arms. It transforms the whole dancing vocabulary into a balletic line of movement. The first second detail concerns the shoes: on the 1979 video we can see Lucinda Childs herself wearing a pair of white Adidas Stan Smith. The new cast of dancers is wearing white ballet slippers. These two details reveal how this piece has evolved through the years and how the choreographer herself has altered her style. It reveals how the contemporary style of this piece has been wiped away and replaced by obvious ballet style markers. It might be accounted for by the fact that since 1984 Lucinda Childs has collaborated very regularly with ballet companies throughout the world. The recreation of her piece in 2009 is a cogent summary of her stylistic evolution over a period of thirty years.

By calling her piece Dance , Lucinda Childs warns the audience that her piece is a statement about dance itself –about her vision on the art of dancing. Inspired by minimalist aesthetics and post-modern ideas, she devised an artefact that enables us to witness how she sees space and how she relates it to the watching of dance. Lucinda Childs offers us “to see dance differently by transforming the space”[2]. Similar to a previous experiment in 1973 with Calico Mingling[3], it is the video medium that she resorts to in order to achieve a spatial transformation and present dance.
And nowadays, three decades later, no matter how much the video medium has permeated our culture and our daily life, her masterpiece is still as vivid and as exciting for an audience to watch.

Footnotes

[1] Rondeau 2013, 71-74.

[2] Ibid., 71-74

[3] Mangolte 1973.

Sources

Rondeau, Corinne. Lucinda Childs Temps / Danse. Pantin : Centre National de la Danse. 2013.

Mangolte, Babette and Lucinda Childs. Calico Mingling. Film shot in New-York. 1973.
[http://www.crossframed.com/calicomingling/]