By Suzanne Carbonneau
There is nothing more thrilling for art-goers than the moment of encounter with an artist whose work is so singular as to make us feel that we will never see art—or the world—in quite the same way again. This is what keeps even the most jaded among us going back to theaters and galleries: the idea that we will emerge different people than we were when we had entered.
That experience of transformation is, of course, a rarity. We can love art, we can admire it, even be awed by it, but not be fundamentally changed by it. That happens only with the work of artists who upend our assumptions about what art can do or be, about who we are or can be.
Lucinda Childs is precisely this kind of transformative artist.
In 2009, a triumphant revival of Childs’s 30-year-old DANCE burst upon audiences with the force of revelation. Its title announced its intention: DANCE meant to make a case for the nature of dance in its purest form, paring away the encrustations of narrative, psychology, and personal expression. But it had taken DANCE three decades to find its audience, or more precisely, for the audience to find DANCE. On its initial tour in 1979, this work had been met with widespread bafflement and even hostility. The choreography had so unnerved some audiences that there were walkouts en masse. At the Champs-Élysées, people screamed that it wasn’t dance; at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the dancers had to dodge projectiles hurled from the audience. But thirty years on, dancegoers found themselves converts to the beauty of DANCE and its vision of an Elysium of pure movement, pure energy, and pure design. DANCE was belatedly acclaimed as one of the great artworks of the twentieth century.
The reincarnation of DANCE spurred an international boom of interest in Childs’ work and the last decade has seen the revival of other treasures in her repertory. In its two-week season of the Lucinda Childs Dance Company, the Joyce Theater is presenting a five-decade survey of these masterworks, including the welcome return of the magisterial DANCE. Spanning her entire career—from the first dance she made, to a commission created especially for this program—Lucinda Childs: A Portrait (1963-2016) allows the uncommon opportunity to trace the phase-by-phase development of a choreographer’s artistic process.
The retrospective program begins with Pastime (1963), the very first professional work that Childs created, while a member of the legendary Judson Dance Theater. She had just graduated from college but found herself in the center of a revolutionary new movement in American dance. The Young Turks of Judson rejected the expressionism that had defined modern dance since its founding, and in Pastime, we see Childs’ nascent experiments with ideas that would reappear over the course of her career: What happens to our perception of an action, Childs asks, when the same movement is repeated in different situations?
After Childs left Judson in the late 1960s, she took a hiatus from dancing and embarked on an intensive period of studying art history, dance history, and aesthetics. Childs was reading the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who saw the body as the primary site for understanding the world, and she became interested in making dances that consciously mined the human capacity for perception. Childs was also drawn to the art and theories of Minimalist sculptors and painters, including Robert Morris, Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, and Sol Lewitt, who aimed to fuse form and content, and to erase the personality of the artist in the art object. When Childs returned to the studio five years later, she applied these ideas in movement terms, and over a five-year period in the mid-1970s, created what she calls her “Works in Silence.” On the Joyce program, Radial Courses, Interior Drama, and Katema represent this phase of discovery.
Danced only to the sounds that the dancers generate as they move, the “Works in Silence” employ a deliberately restricted palette of movements that are not freighted with meaning—walking, jumping, hopping, turning, and skipping. Using these “pure” movements, Childs assembled propulsive phrases that repeated while she systematically varied their geometric, mathematical, and spatial relationships. These changes happen so gradually as to be almost imperceptible as they occur. The result is a continuous shift in how we perceive each phrase over the course of the work.
The demands of the “Works in Silence” work both ways: not only do they require a new kind of perceptual acuity from the audience, but they make enormous claims on the performers’ stamina and powers of concentration. Childs choreographic process was also extraordinarily labor intensive. While those shifting patterns on stage seemed to occur by sleight of hand, their discovery had entailed months of experimentation in the studio, where Childs methodically tested each variable of space and time with the rigor of a laboratory scientist.
In the midst of creating her “Works in Silence,” Childs encountered two artists who would change her creative life. On the same day that he met her, the theater auteur Robert Wilson invited Childs to create the primary speaking role and to choreograph a marathon solo in his Einstein on the Beach (1976). Now recognized as one of the defining works of theater in the twentieth century, Einstein not only made Childs a fixture of the international avant-garde but also introduced her to that work’s composer, Philip Glass.
When Glass met Childs, his first thought was to ask, “What does she need me for?” It seemed to Glass that Childs’s work—so consonant with his own in their shared repeating structures—was already complete in itself. But after Einstein, Glass became convinced that they should continue to create together and he approached Childs with the idea of collaborating on the full-evening DANCE. In approaching the music Glass wrote for her, Childs developed the method she would use in all her future work: She carefully analyzed its structure and created a parallel choreographic pattern that would, she says, “overlap” the score so that dance “plays with the music—on top of it, underneath it, around it.”
To complete the collaboration, Glass suggested that they invite sculptor Sol Lewitt, an artist and theorist whom Childs had long admired, to create the décor. Childs and Lewitt wrestled with the idea of how to integrate a design that would not overwhelm the visual complexity of Childs’ choreography. Finally, they hit on the idea of what Childs calls “a décor that’s not a décor.” It was Childs’ idea that Lewitt make a film that would synchronize with the dancers’ images so that “the décor should be the dancers.”
It is one of the great mysteries of Childs’ work that her rigorously Minimalist aesthetic unfailingly elicits transcendence in her viewers. In the Washington Post, Alan M. Kriegsman wrote of the “sensation of floating, cosmic euphoria” he felt in watching DANCE. In fact, Childs believes that the nature of these impersonal geometric patterns is precisely what induces this sublimity. She could well be describing her own choreography in tracing how, in listening to Glass’ music, “you are taken little by little, farther and farther out somewhere, out of yourself. And it’s done in such a simple way with simple, subtle transitions of variations, which sometimes become longer and longer and become reworked in different ways. So you think you are back where you were before. But you realize that you’ve been taken somewhere, as if on a kind of voyage.” Indeed, Childs cites Glass’s music as “deeply spiritual.”
DANCE was a watershed for Childs, the beginning of the mature style she has pursued in working with music in the nearly forty years since its premiere. And it is her interest in having steady access to the resources of well-funded opera houses and orchestras that has drawn her to work largely in Europe over the past several decades. This period of her career is represented on the Joyce program by the 1993 Concerto, which has become a Childs’ signature work. The dance gets its title from its score, Gorecki’s “Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings,” which drives the dancers in propulsive waves of meetings and partings.
This career retrospective concludes with Lollapalooza (2010), set to John Adams’s “Son of Chamber Symphony.” Adams has been a favorite among Childs’ musical collaborators, and the regard is mutual. In his autobiography Hallelujah Junction, Adams commended Childs’ musical sensitivity and acumen: “Picking out the most subtle variations in timbre and rhythm in the music,” he wrote, “she has choreographed every single second of the score.” Over the years, as Childs has pursued her choreographic “overlap” with musical scores, her work has continued to deepen in mood even as it has retained the formal purity of its structures.
In her five decades of dance-making, Lucinda Childs has changed the very nature of dance. And in doing so, she has changed the perceptual abilities of her audience. In asking that we pay keen attention to subtle changes in her dances, Childs prepares us to do the same outside the theater. That is, in making dances that give us the opportunity to perceive ourselves perceiving, she teaches us that we have the power to be richer observers of the world. Is there a better reason to go to the theater?
You can see Lucinda Childs: A Portrait (1963-2016) November 29 - December 4, and DANCE from December 6 - 11, 2016.