Just ‘Dance’: Work by Lucinda Childs captures the essence of the art form

To watch Lucinda Childs’s “Dance,” performed Thursday and Friday at the University of Maryland, is to be bowled over by the absorbing richness of minimalism.

There’s the smart execution — dancers pulsing across the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center stage in tight, linear formation, like sparks of light. And the rigorous selectivity of the steps — skimming runs, small, unemphatic leaps, a split-second turn, light skips. But little else. For an hour. The visual delight and the swept-up feeling come from myriad variations Childs has worked out on a theme of exquisite clarity.

This piece, which the experimental modern-dance choreographer created in 1979 in collaboration with composer Philip Glass and visual artist Sol LeWitt, is minimal down to its name. You watch the dancers’ subtle changes in accent amid unflagging speed, how they stream across the stage with a thrilling constancy that starts to feel eternal, and you think, yes, this is the essence of dance.

It’s also a merry farewell jig on the grave of self-indulgence. If you have tired of the explosive displays of agility and showboating that characterize much of ballet and even contemporary dance — where extremes of stretch and the altitude of jumps are just about the whole point — “Dance” offers a more thoughtful, considered approach to spectacle. For it is a spectacle of sorts, albeit a highly disciplined one. That is its charm and its power. Glass’s silvery musical outpouring grounds the dancing and also energizes it, while LeWitt’s black-and-white film of the original cast, projected on a transparent scrim in front of the live dancers, creates an altered reality of transient layers.

“Dance” opens with a giant still photo, looming on the scrim, of two dancers captured in mid-step. Then two live dancers leap across the stage, performing that same step again and again, adding a quick run, a sideways jump and more running that carries them into the wings.

Glass’s music is full of rippling high notes and contrasting undertones, and the distinct tension in the score is echoed in the interplay between the dancers and their counterparts on film.

The filmed dancers performed on a grid, and when it is projected on the scrim, it looks like a vaporous three-dimensional substance so that the live dancers seem to be moving on and through it. Moving behind the grainy, translucent images (originally shot in 35mm film, recently transferred to digital form), the dancers appear to be moving through fog.

The second section of “Dance” is a solo, danced by Caitlin Scranton. But mostly, we see LeWitt’s film of Childs herself, who danced the solo in the original cast. We see her at the outset, filmed in a close-up as big as a billboard, standing perfectly still. Above her firm cheekbones and square jaw, her eyes look out with such a determined, concentrated gaze it is a surprise when she blinks.

The music is deeper in tone in this section, sounding like a church organ. LeWitt played with perspective; at times Childs is filmed so close that her great giant self seems about to dance into the audience. At other times, she is filmed from above, so the grid on which she was moving fills our plane of view. The music grows obsessive: a single, strong pulse. Childs, in white top and trousers — the uniform of this piece — skips unsmilingly up and down the same line, a renunciate in the Order of Divine Order. She is a point on God’s graph paper, her steps as compulsive and earnest as a prayer.

Let’s have more minimalism, I say — if you’ll pardon the contradiction in terms. Think of all the pluses: Minimalism focuses on just the essentials. There’s nothing extraneous. Minimalists are resourceful, mining the same territory over and over. (And over.) And then — it’s over. As the last dancer came to a halt in “Dance’s” third and final 20-minute section, there were gasps in the audience at the shock of the sudden stillness.

After Thursday’s performance, Childs took questions from the audience. Dressed in a sleek black pantsuit, with cropped silver hair, she looked just as serious and withheld as in LeWitt’s film of more than 30 years ago. Nothing about her encouraged gushing; still, people gushed.

One man expressed his opinion that Twyla Tharp’s well-known 1986 work “In the Upper Room,” which also uses Glass music, borrows from “Dance.” (In truth, there is a similarity or two, but I’m not so sure about a connection.)

Childs brought her microphone to her lips. “I’m not responding,” she said, wisely. “I’m just saying thank you.” Mike down. Next question.

Minimalism. It also works as etiquette.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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