Going back

Lucinda Childs' conceptual classic Dance returns to the Bay Area

Live performance in synchronized with film by Sol LeWitt in Lucinda Childs' Dance


DANCE Speaking from her home in New York, choreographer Lucinda Childs recalls the unfavorable reception to her 1979 piece Dance. "People walked out saying that I didn't have a vocabulary and that anybody could do that kind of dancing." Fortunately, perceptions and concepts of dance have evolved.

Childs' one-hour pure dance piece, set to music by Philip Glass and accompanied by Sol LeWitt's film, is presented this weekend by San Francisco Performances in association with Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. It is a rare opportunity to see a work by one of the seminal artists from the Judson Church movement, named after the New York City location that hosted the revolution.

In the early 1960s, choreographers tried to wipe the slate clean of what dance was, could, should, or need be. Technique, virtuosity, a codified vocabulary, and style — whether Balanchine's, Martha Graham's, or Merce Cunningham's — were out. Everyday movement, improvisation, matter-of-factness and wysiwyg's were the "cool" of the day. These at one time radical ideas were largely responsible for democratizing dance.

Today the movement has run its course. Its practitioners — with a few exceptions, such as Trisha Brown and David Gordon, who have continued onto international careers — are part of history. Childs is one of them — a legend in her own time whose choreography is almost never seen, in part because she works primarily in Europe. After the end of this tour, she is heading to Nice in France, then returning to the Ballet du Rhin, where she has been in residence for the last decade. "I am looking forward to going back," says Childs, "It's nice to work with dancers you know."

So why Dance, and why now?

Even though her recent rigorous choreography is more conventionally theatrical, Childs is at heart a classicist. A piece like Dance transcends time and place even as it changes. Childs takes pedestrian movements — walking, skipping, running, hopping — and strips them of whatever context the steps might imply. They are performed with utmost clarity, without personal inflexion, giving the illusion that they are pure designs in space. But they are not. Repetition, accumulation, retrograde, overlaps, and mirroring are the formal devices that create incremental change, similar to the way it happens in Glass' music. The whole dance becomes a shimmering unit and you begin to recognize differences among dancers. Geometry comes alive.

No surprise, therefore, that LeWitt was drawn to Childs. His work is as conceptually exacting as hers. His paintings and wall drawings are as meticulously planned and "impersonally" realized as her choreography. It probably also helped that Childs has a highly developed visual sense; she once took a section from a Seurat painting and danced its dots — backward.

For Dance's film element, shot by Lisa Rinsler, LeWitt superimposed a grid on the floor and captured sections of the choreography. He used split screens, odd angles, and close-ups. The film is synchronized with the live dance, initially making the performers dance with themselves. In 1979, video wasn't as pervasive, so the effect of seeing the same dancers simultaneously on screen and on the stage was startling.

In the contemporary version of Dance, a gap has opened between the live and virtual performers. "The dancers today, are very different from what they were," Childs explains. "They are much more technically trained, they also are different people."

But the biggest change will be in the solo, which, when I saw the work a decade ago, Childs still danced herself. While it was fascinating to see contemporary and earlier dancers cohabiting the same universe, to see Childs dance against her younger self was breathtaking. Time collapsed into an eternal present.

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