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Lucinda Childs’ Dance a Throwback to another Time

by Amanda Abrams
February 17, 2017
Memorial Hall - The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
114 East Cameron Avenue
Chapel Hill, NC 27599
(919) 843-3333
It’s hard to really grasp the impact Lucinda Childs’ seminal piece, Dance, had when it was first performed in 1979. At the time, it was considered minimalist—concerned with stripping away unnecessary adornment and elitist values—and she collaborated with two similarly avant garde artists, Philip Glass and Sol LeWitt.

Then and for years after, the piece was hailed as a work of genius. Washington Post dance reviewer Alan Kriegsman famously wrote, “A few times, at most, in the course of a decade a work of art comes along that makes a genuine breakthrough, defining for us new modes of perception and feeling and clearly belonging as much to the future as to the present. Such a work is Dance.”

But times change, and the context and expectations and taboos of almost 40 years ago have long given way. Today, there’s little a sophisticated viewer of modern dance would be surprised to see on a proscenium stage. As a result, it can be very difficult to understand the power that Dance had then. I certainly found that to be the case while watching the Lucinda Childs Dance Company perform it at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall on Feb. 7.

The piece itself was fairly simple. Clad in all white on an empty stage, the dancers’ movements were driven by Glass’s breathless compositions. The only embellishment was a video created by LeWitt; it featured the piece’s original dancers in black and white and was projected on the stage in a variety of ways—but always in perfect time with the flesh-and-blood, 2017 dancers.

Lasting an hour, the piece had three sections; the first and third were group pieces featuring ten dancers, and the middle one was a solo. In all three, the choreography appeared deceptively simple, starting out with bouncy steps like skip hops, chassés, and side leaps that gradually gave way to turns and bigger movements. Like the music, though, it never paused for a moment, and in the first and third sections, the dancers frequently moved in tight, well-rehearsed unison.

I’m embarrassed to confess that it wasn’t until halfway through the show that I realized that every step, every phrase of the evening’s choreography was synchronous with the music. The dancers moved with it or against it in some way—pausing, shifting direction, amplifying their movements, doing something entirely new—but they always interacted closely with the music’s phrases.

Observing that interaction added a new layer of fascination and intrigue, as I struggled to notice exactly how a dancer would interpret the music’s shifts in key or rhythm. But by and large, that fascination was intellectual, not emotional. The dancers and their ghostly doppelgangers in the video projection gave off little feeling: not in their basic white outfits, nor in their faces, and certainly not in their upright bearing. Their torsos barely moved; there was never an errant shoulder raised, a hip jutted out, an off-center rib cage. It was all extremely contained, and the piece at times felt more like a primer on pairing movement with music than a form of expression.

Sometimes I found myself focusing on the video rather than the live dancers. It was difficult not to compare the two: even though both were doing the same steps at the same time, something was different. The 1979 dancers were clearly from another era; they were waif-thin, the cut of their leotards was old fashioned, and their movements were subtly different—less technical and more casual, and perhaps more joyful as well. At times, the film was projected on the top half of the space, creating the effect of a two-story stage populated by as many as 16 dancers. I almost felt sorry for the real dancers, who had to compete with ghosts.

And Glass’s music ceaselessly drove through it all. Initially, it struck me as swirling carousel music, candy-bright; later, I heard organ music, the type played at a funeral. At other times it sounded almost like angels singing. Not particularly familiar with Glass’s compositions, I found myself skeptical of the music’s impact as, at times, it repeated itself in the manner of a scratched CD, or threatened over and over to stop without actually doing so.

And yet by the piece’s end, the music had gotten under my skin and affected me somehow. And just that—its ability to move me in a way that the choreography had failed to—is perhaps the reason that Glass is still considered a groundbreaking genius, while Childs has been somewhat forgotten.

Photo © & courtesy of Sally Cohn

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