The meaning of DANCE

There are few occasions when it’s possible to be at a groundbreaking event in the arts, and know in advance that it’s going to be really important. Those last Velvet Underground gigs at Max’s Kansas City; Keith Haring’s Soho debut at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in 1982; the opening of Waiting for Godot in 1955 (“appealing to a definition of drama much more fundamental than any in the books” said Kenneth Tynan), or maybe A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Peter Brook on swings and trapezes 15 years later.

Of course there are revivals. But we don’t usually get the chance to see why those things mattered so much at the time. Which us why Lucinda Childs’s DANCE – in performance at The Arts Centre at NYU Abu Dhabi on 5 and 6 September – is so special. True, this too is a revival of the 1979 original; but it’s one that gives us more than a mere ghostly recollection of those times.

Lucinda Childs, photo by Rita Antonioli. All other images by Sally Cohn

In 1979, Lucinda Childs began rehearsals for DANCE. The title says it all: it’s conceptual dance, where the movement of the bodies in the very specific physical space was the entire point of the piece. There’s no story, no desire to create images or emotional resonances. It’s the dance analogue of minimalism in art and design.

Lucinda Childs had been one of the founders of the Judson Dance Theatre, the group of choreographers and dancers who illuminated the New York dance scene in the 1960s – other alumni included Trisha Brown , Steve Paxton and Twyla Tharp. Though the Judson group only stayed together for a few short years, its influence was radical in creating what came to be called postmodern dance; overt theatricality and traditional narrative were rejected, everyday movement was promoted as valid performance art in its own right. Unexpected collaborations with composers and artists leading to new methods of dance composition were also characteristic of the Judson.

This kind of cross-discipline creativity is common now; back in the 60s it was eye opening. This is how Lucinda Childs put it: “What we were fighting for – especially my generation – is that dance is in and of itself a beautiful thing … It can just be the form itself, as an abstract form, and still be a moving experience, and a human experience …”

Childs distilled the essence of movement even more than many of her contemporaries. “I enjoyed just dealing with the very simple movements that would be considered perhaps pedestrian: walking, changing directions,” she said. “After pop art, which seemed like the end of everything, the minimalist movement was just the opposite. Everything was beginning, everything could be reduced to the seemingly simple.”

Childs’ early works were mostly solos for herself and mostly without music. Carnation (1964) was a series of body movements with “found objects” such as hair curlers, a plastic bag, a sock. In Street Dance (also 1964) the audience listened to taped instructions while Childs and another dancer disappeared into a freight lift and reappeared in a doorway over the road.

She took a five-year sabbatical from dance to recharge (she became a grade-school teacher) but returned with her own company in the 1970s and created two critical hits that also happened to be landmark dances of the time. In 1976 she worked with Robert Wilson and Philip Glass on the formalist, plot-eschewing opera Einstein on the Beach, which she danced and co-choreographed.

Three years later came DANCE; and even after nearly 40 years, it feels innovative, inspiring and refreshing.

For this project Lucinda Childs worked with the conceptualist artist Sol LeWitt and composer Philip Glass. In his long and busy career LeWitt turned his hand to many forms of art as he sought to demonstrate that the artist and the medium are both less important than the work itself; but he only made one film – and it’s a key element in DANCE.

The film, shot in monochrome 35mm, features the dancers of the original 1979 company. LeWitt positioned his dancers on a grid, and shot them from several angles and multiple points of view. in performance this is projected on to a screen across the stage, and the live dancers simultaneously execute the projected film in perfect synchronisation.

So a performance of DANCE has dancers of today performing with the 1979 company as filmed by LeWitt (including Lucinda Childs herself, of course). The recorded bodies sometimes achieve a unison with the live performers, at other moments slipping out of phase; the different perspectives are riveting.

For the five pieces that made up Dance, Sol LeWitt and Lucinda Childs exchanged diagrams of the dances. Childs had come up with a methodology based on lines produced by drafting tools, with no attempt to work out the actual pathways taken by the dancers before rehearsals started. In a way, DANCE is based as much on graphic techniques as the choreographic rigour of the dance or the music Philip Glass wrote for the performance.

What characterises DANCE, and perhaps Lucinda Childs’ style more generally, is clarity and simplicity in presentation. That doesn’t mean simplicity in construction – some of her movements are detailed and demanding – and nor does it mean a lack of emotion or beauty; it’s just that patterns are of more interest to Childs than narrative or dramatic evocation. You can see that in Dance; the effect is often hypnotic, a rippling, shimmering play of patterns, like movements in water or light refracting through a prism.

The film shows the dancers moving across a white grid that sometimes tilts, sometimes zooms in or out; even the live figures seem to change scale and question formal geometry. There are endless possibilities in the space around the dancers, and in the music that provides an aural pattern to match the visual. It’s about technique and form in constant motion. There’s no story, but there is no need for a story; this is dance, as simple and as complex as that implies. As a Washington Post review put it: “You watch the dancers’ subtle changes in accent amid unflagging speed, how they stream across the stage with a thrilling constancy … and you think, yes, this is the essence of dance”.

Lucinda Childs continued her collaborations with avant garde artists and composers – Frank Gehry and John Adams, Robert Mapplethorpe and Michael Nyman, Terry Riley and Iaanis Xenakis – but increasingly turned to choreographing works for ballet companies around the world. She has also been directing both classical and contemporary opera productions. In 2004, Childs was named Commandeur de l’Ordre de la Légion d’Honneur by the French government.

DANCE plays at 8pm on 5 and 6 September at The Arts Center. General admission is AED 105; more information is here.

There is also a two-hour dance workshop with members of the company at 7pm on 3 September; intermediate dancers can sign up for free here, but be warned – space is limited!

LUCINDA CHILDS three to see

Carnation created at Judson Dance Theatre in 1964

Chacony created for Mikhail Baryshnikov and his White Oak Dance Project in 2002

Excerpts from a 2011 restaging of Dance with interview remarks from Lucinda Childs and Philip Glass

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