Lucinda Childs’s ‘Dance,’ back in motion at the University of Maryland


Lucinda Childs's company performs her seminal 1979 work, "Dance." Live dancers are overlaid by and seemingly mingle with ghost-like, larger-than-life projected images of the original performers. (Sally Cohn/Sally Cohn)

In dance, the more time passes, the harder it is to revive an older work. Memories fade, tastes change, interest can dwindle. But the passage of time has been a boon for one important creation — a collaboration among three pioneers of postmodern art that has found new life and fuller appreciation more than 30 years after its premiere.

Simply called “Dance,” the hour-long piece, created in 1979, features light, springy, rigorously linear choreography by Lucinda Childs — one of dance’s original abstract experimentalists. Philip Glass composed the steadily throbbing music, and groundbreaking visual artist Sol LeWitt contributed the decor, which is surely one of the most striking ever made for an abstract dance. LeWitt, who died in 2007, was known for his geometric sculptures and opulent wall-size paintings, but for Childs he created something he’d never done before. He decided to multiply and layer her dancers, just as she was combining and recombining their steps and Glass was layering sounds.

LeWitt made a black-and-white film of the dance, which was projected during the live performance. The dancers moved with their filmic images, overlapping two dimensions with three, and monotone film with living color, in a continuous play of contrasts.

Yet as much as LeWitt’s film preserved the choreography, it also threatened to doom it. As the years passed, his three reels of 35mm film deteriorated so much that they could no longer be shown.

Until now. Technology — and audience tastes — have caught up with “Dance’s” innovation. The film has been transferred to a high-definition digital format. New dancers have been taught the steps, and the Philip Glass Ensemble has re-recorded the score. Happily, the results can be seen Thursday and Friday at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

For Childs, 70, this renewed life for her “Dance” has been a surprise. Some years ago this repetitive, mesmerizing but severe work was big in France, welcome territory for other cerebral experimentalists such as Merce Cunningham . . . but here? And yet Childs has been touring the country with “Dance” for two years, with dancers who weren’t even born when the work premiered. A bare, brainy work from the high priestess of minimalism, touring the country like a Broadway road show!

And to think, cold and methodical as it is, “Dance” could get audiences steaming with anger in its early years.

“I guess it was the reduced ballet technique,” Childs said recently by phone from Minneapolis, one of her tour stops. “They’d say there’s no vocabulary there. But actually it’s pretty complex. . . . So people got angry because this looks easy — you know, ‘Oh, they’re just skipping around.’ ”

In truth, there is vastly more than that going on in “Dance,” though you could be forgiven for missing some of the minute variations in the sequences of kicks, lunges, turns and galloping steps. The film, shown on a transparent scrim in front of the dancers, juices it up, adding drama and mystery. If the grainy images of the 1979 cast seem like ghosts, then aren’t the live dancers, performing in perfect synchronization with their digital counterparts, the very embodiment of time?

But attempts like this to seek meaning in the work are not Childs’s style. Childs, who now lives in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., was one of the early postmodernists in dance, joined by Twyla Tharp and others in the downtown New York scene of the 1960s and ’70s. They were experimenting with the pared-down essentials of movement — walking, leaping and turning. Tharp gradually adopted a witty, showier style and moved into the mainstream; others took up more self-expressive forms of dance.

Childs, however, relentlessly zeroed in on simplicity and precision. Where others embellished, she trimmed away. Her works were meticulous explorations of pattern — seeing how many combinations she could create from a handful of steps.

“My focus is not so much on the content but on what can be done with the material,” she said. “Using the existing material. For me, it’s about what I did with it. The vocabulary is very, very basic.”

Before “Dance,” in fact, Childs didn’t even use music. All of her dances were performed in silence. Then she joined forces with Robert Wilson and Glass on the opera “Einstein on the Beach,” which premiered in 1976; she was the choreographer and leading dancer. That, she says, was “a big challenge and transition for me.” (She also took part in the opera’s revivals over the years, and her choreography will be reconstructed for a 2012 run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.)

After “Einstein,” she wanted to work with Glass again. “Dance” was “completely inspired by the music,” Childs said, “studying the music, and finding movement phrases that I felt belonged there, to correspond to what’s happening musically.”

Glass, who had a wide circle of friends in the art world, introduced Childs to LeWitt. But painting some kind of backdrop for her dance wasn’t what LeWitt had in mind.

“Sol was not interested in doing a drop with the dancers dancing in front of it,” Childs said. “He said, ‘The decor is the dancers.’ ” He and Childs ruminated on how he could augment the action onstage, and finally came up with the idea of a film.

“It moves the audience above them and beside them,” said Childs, whose undiminished admiration for his film is evident in her voice. “There are so many ideas that he worked into the editing.”

Childs is depicted in the film; she is the one dancing the lengthy solo in the middle. Amazingly, she says she still danced that solo up until about 10 years ago.

Over the years, Childs has found more work in Europe than here, creating dances for ballet companies as well as choreographing numerous opera productions. Various French companies performed “Dance,” but Childs stopped mounting productions of it about a decade ago when the film began to fall apart.

In 2009, Bard College asked Childs to revive “Dance” for its Summer Festival — and undertook the film’s preservation with the latest digital technology.

“They took it on and preserved it in a way that I’m very happy about,” Childs said.

But the passage of time has not only made possible the preservation of LeWitt’s crucial film. It has also brought audience sensibilities more in line with Childs’s. Audiences today, the choreographer says, are vastly more receptive to “Dance” than they were when it was made.

“I’m so pleased this piece has had another life,” Childs said. “Thirty years ago, people questioned it — they doubted my motives, as if they were not serious.”

Childs laughs, and her laughter carries the ring of vindication.

“They don’t do that now.”

Dance

Thursday and Friday at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

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, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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