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perth international arts festival preview

essential & seminal: a work called dance

erin brannigan: lucinda childs, perth international arts festival

Lucinda Childs Lucinda Childs
photo Nathaniel Tileston

Brussels based Olga De Soto based a ‘performative lecture’ on a 1932 piece by Kurt Joos (An Introduction). And Eszter Salamon adapted John Cage’s 1949 “Letter on Nothing” (Dance for Nothing). Locally, Jane McKernan curated an excellent program of short works titled Dance History, for Campbelltown Arts Centre in 2010 that began with the dancers reeling off choreographers names from across the 20th century.

This historical turn in dance has shown that some of the most relevant artists were, unsurprisingly perhaps, some of the most controversial in their own time. Lucinda Childs, with a 40-year career, is one such example eliciting a recent homage from Dutch choreographer Nicole Beutler, Dialogue with Lucinda (2010). Beutler worked with one of Childs’ assistants and the choreographer enjoyed the resulting work. Childs is happy to be seen within such a context: “We want the art form in and of itself to be important, to protect and preserve that dance tradition.”

Childs explains that her key work, DANCE (1979), was created in collaboration with composer Philip Glass and visual artist Sol LeWitt following Childs’ collaboration with Glass and Robert Wilson on the landmark opera, Einstein on the Beach in 1976. I asked how the special dialogue between the choreography and music in the work was produced: “Well the music came first—I felt I wanted to work very much with the existing structure in order to create the counterpoint, dialogue and tension with the choreography.” However, Childs carried out the project in a truly collaborative spirit. “I would never want to give another artist an ‘assignment’—I want them to enter into it with a completely open mind and spirit, so they really are involved from the very, very beginning, not stepping into an existing situation.”

Childs would go on to collaborate with Wilson as both choreographer and performer many times and a large part of her work over the last 20 years has been within the field of an expanded notion of opera pioneered by Wilson. Childs has played an important role in ensuring a place for dance within the innovations occurring where the performing arts meet at key moments in the last 40 years.

DANCE is a rarity, now perhaps even more than when it first appeared. It manages to combine original and compelling choreography with highly conceptual work that is intensely dependent on structures and dimensions brought from other art forms. DANCE was first remounted in the US in 2009 and some of the dancers cast in that revival will be performing in a season of the work at Perth International Arts Festival in February. Childs, a member of the influential Judson Dance Theater in New York which re-routed 20th century dance onto its current course, established her own company in 1973 with the aim of developing a distinct choreographic language that broke with the questioning of dance (“making an omelette out of anything but an egg”) that had marked Childs’ work with Judson.

DANCE is the original contemporary dance work to use an intensely limited palette of movement in a composition of infinitely varied phrases. Like Glass’ music, it seems more apt to use the term ‘essential’ than ‘minimal’ in describing the work, a point made by Glass himself. This seems to preserve the positive dimension of the creative process, describing a distillation rather than a process of stripping away. In an article written in 1975, Childs describes a choreographic process where one element acts as a “sounding board” for the rest of the work, so that the composition consists of “reversals, subdivisions, inversions, re-ordering in space, and displacement from one dancer to another.” Childs explains that her interest in DANCE was not in developing a “personal vocabulary” but in creating “simple ideas that relate to the structure of Philip Glass’ score… not so much the content but what he’s done with the material…not to illustrate the music or contradict it, but to set a tension between the two structures.”

DANCE, Lucinda Childs DANCE, Lucinda Childs
courtesy PIAF
The flow or sustained quality of the work creates an impression of flight; the dancers seem to ride the rhythm and energy of a swinging momentum with ease, as if they are being danced by the score. “In performance, there is an excitement connected to the physical and mental stamina of the dancers…it’s a virtuosic style that doesn’t come out and make a big splash, but we sustain and build over a period of 20 minutes. That’s something we really have to work on. But there is also just the enjoyment of the music—we never get tired of the music.” The impression of ease is deceptive: “The precision required of the dancers is enormous because they have to count the music very carefully in order to perform the kind of structuring I want, which is a counterpoint really.” Precision is also required because they are performing with the virtual ‘ghost’ dancers featured in LeWitt’s projections from the original 1979 production.

Originally shot on 35mm B&W film and projected onto a scrim both with and without the dancers on stage, it is the only film ever made by Sol LeWitt and provides the ‘scenario’ for DANCE, so that everything on stage refers back to the realm of the composition. “The main aim for LeWitt was not to create some arbitrary drop for the dancers to dance in front of, and in a way he wasn’t sure how to collaborate until we decided that the décor should be the dancers.” The projected dancers expand upon the live performers as echoes or shadows, but they also ‘flesh out’ the visual movement by reiterating—but also complicating the already intricate variations on one theme that make up the dance. Lucinda Childs states that the projection provides ‘a different point-of-view because of all the shifts in camera angle and editing—LeWitt did a phenomenal amount of work on that and I think that’s something people can see in performance—it’s very clear.”

Perth International Arts Festival: Lucinda Childs Dance Company, Dance, Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA, Perth, Feb 22-25,

RealTime issue #107 Feb-March 2012 pg. 9

© Erin Brannigan; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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