Friday, November 13, 2009


Words like "precise" and "controlled" certainly describe the movement quality of Lucinda Childs' 1979 work Dance, but they're insufficient and generalized; after all, they'd apply to the work of countless, very different choreographers. "Formal" comes a bit closer, if it's used to mean concerned primarily with form over content, but that word's other connotations belie the pure joy of watching the dance unfold for an hour and a half; in that way, "austere" falls short, too, though the dance could hardly be more stripped-down. There's that contentious old word, "minimalist," and with Dance's reduced formal vocabulary, its simple, repeated steps and phrases that add up to a complex whole, and its driving, near-constant momentum, that word admittedly fits the bill. (Of course, the case for "minimalist" is strengthened by the presence of two other artists who contributed to Dance, and whose own work has been irrevocably attached to that label: Philip Glass, whose urgent music seems to activate the movement, and Sol LeWitt, whose setting for the dance, a film projected on an almost transparent scrim that hangs in front of the dancers, articulates a clear vocabulary of shots, then repeats and modifies them in a deliberate, controlled fashion.) But "minimalist" fails the way it often fails: individual moments do seem minimalist, but the work in its entirety is so exuberant and full that, when it's over, nothing short of "maximalist" seems adequate. The truth is that Dance moves, delicately, between all these descriptors, and many (occasionally contradictory) others. It exists in what Susan Sontag, in her remarkable 1983 essay about Childs, "A Lexicon for Available Light" called an "ideal space, where ideal transactions and transformations take place," and so, perhaps, evades unsatisfactory attempts at labeling.

Dance is structured in three sections: in the first and third, the dancing is propulsive, and the dancers leap and spin about the stage in focused bursts of repeated movement. Dressed simply in white, their arms at angles, and as kinetic as their legs, the dancers never touch. Their paths intersect, they mirror each other's movements, but each dancer, almost unaware of the others, traces an individual series of arcs and lines, as if fixed into a track. In an Artforum review of the original performance, Deborah Perlberg describes the dancers as being "spewed out of the wings from either side, converging momentarily to draw patterns with each other as they pass," and compares their movement to that of "atomic particles."

The second section, a solo, is slower and graver, and begins in complete stillness. The dancing remains repetitive, gradually adding and removing identical or related phrases, but its effect is quite different: rather than overwhelming the spectator with the stimulus of so many bodies rushing past, the solo work is focusing, gently hypnotic. A fundamental element is the surprisingly poignant repetition of a spin, which begins with the soloist downstage, and increases in speed as she moves up; only for her to move in a straight line back down; again spinning, faster, up. Again and again: six times, eight, ten? Easy to lose track. ("Repetition," Sontag writes, "is also a method of inducing bliss.")


Each section of the dance is set to a piece of Philip Glass music: "Dance No. 1," "Dance No. 4," and "Dance No. 3," respectively. Aligned neatly with the structure of the dancing, #1 and #3 are close cousins, buoyant with restless, joyful purpose, while #4, from the same family, is nonetheless darker, more measured, and lonelier. #1 is scored for keyboard, voice (a soprano), flutes and piccolo; #4 for a mournful solo organ; and #3 for keyboard, voice, and saxophones. The music is unmistakably late '70s Philip Glass, from a period when the composer was uncompromising, unseasoned, and never romantic (or commercially viable), still embracing a fiercely avant garde sound that evokes singing circuit boards or, in the case of #1 and #3, duets between a soprano and a microprocessor. It's intensely focused, sometimes merciless in its rigorous unidirectionality and repetition, but can surprise the listener with a sudden pause or reversal (like a shift in an electrical current).

A fascinating contradiction I find in Glass' music of this period is that for all its furious, repetitive sound, for the remarkable number of notes that must be present on the pages of the scores, it manages to achieve a deep and mysterious stillness, like calm ocean water far below thrashing waves. Its marriage to Childs' dancing is remarkable, an effortless, complementary union that brazenly defies Merce Cunningham's notion that music and dance should exist independently, instead finding aesthetic strength in the structural unity between the two.

Sol LeWitt reportedly resisted Childs' invitation to create a set for her dance at first, claiming both that her dancing was complex enough on its own, and that he didn't make art that served as a supporting element of other artists' work. But when she suggested that he make a film, one that would interact with the dancing rather that support it in a conventional sense, she won him over. The result is something that,thirty years after its conception, still manages to surprise and delight with the inventive new perceptual opportunities in affords the viewer.

LeWitt filmed the dancers in Childs' company performing Dance in 1979, shooting from several different perspectives, in medium shots, long shots and close-ups, and then edited it in such a way that particular shot styles repeat throughout. The black and white film is projected onto a scrim that hangs in front of the dancers. As the dancers move around the stage enacting their complex patterns, they dance with ghosts, spectral selves who enter and exit, mirroring the dancers' actions, always adding new layers of complexity, mystery, and beauty. Sometimes the dancers dance alone; sometimes they leave the stage and the film ghosts dance alone; but usually, the two move together. In a few instances, the ghosts dance on top of the dancers, presenting the illusion of a scaffold; sometimes they dance right beside one another, human whirling past specter, barely missing each other. Occasionally, the ghosts become huge, towering over the dancers like giants, and then return to a more human size, the dancers' physical equals.
The camera is usually still, but occasionally mobile, adding another stirring layer of animation to choreography that's already breathlessly-paced. In a few remarkable moments, shots of the entire stage that were filmed from a high angle are projected on top of the physical stage space, and combined with the grid-like division of the filmed stage, the effect is vertiginous and exhilarating.

The film re-defines the stage space, expanding its dimensions and delighting the eye, but it adds emotional color to the dance as well. For one, it makes occasional, surprising use of still images, which poignantly contrast with the ferocious dynamism of the live dancers and music. These images open and close the performance, and appear intermittently throughout: they are close-ups and medium shots, freezing the ghosts mid-leap or step, arresting their otherwise continuous motion long enough for the audience to see the dancers' strained, individual faces, while around them, the movement continues. Deborah Perlberg writes about the formal implications of these stills: they "illustrat[e] the process of movement," revealing how "each completed gesture is made up of hundreds of...continuous elements," and how "an infinitesimal series of connecting movements...shape the flow from one gesture to another." (To that I would add: by achieving this via the still image, the film too is reflexively meditating on its nature as a flowing whole comprised of thousands of distinct image-units.)

Perlberg's analysis is astute, but this abstract, formal dance is not without emotional affect, and if it is ultimately "about" anything, perhaps it's about time: relentless, unyielding time, illustrated most movingly in the contrast between motion and stillness. 

"Life stand still here," the character Mrs. Ramsay demands repeatedly in Virginia Woolf's 1927 novel To the Lighthouse, and it is the familiarity and futility of her imperative that engenders the reader's sympathy. There is, we know, no stopping time, but for a few instances, LeWitt's film shows us what it would look like, and what it might feel like, if there were. Childs' exhilarating dancers are life itself, personified and framed; LeWitt's film is an echo of life, and his suddenly frozen images, like photographs, conjure our impossible desire for real stillness in a world of ceaseless forward motion.