Lucinda Childs in 2000 (left) and in 2011 (photo by Cameron Wittig, courtesy Walker Art Center)
Lucinda Childs Interview: ‘Dance,’ 30 Years Later
Lucinda Childs is one of America’s leading modern dance choreographers, known for creating minimalist movement based on pattern, repetition, and combinations thereof. While her choreography may appear pedestrian, it can be physically and mentally demanding. Her work is a spatial exploration using ordinary movement. It’s often collaborative, and sometimes accompanied by a monologue or text. Decades ago, Lucinda Childs began changing the way we think about dance.
Her 1979 piece “Dance” was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It consists of three 20-minute dances, performed without intermission. Philip Glass composed the music and conceptual/minimalist artist Sol LeWitt created a black and white film that serves as a set. The film consists of selected passages of the choreography from each of the three dances. In performance, the film is projected on a transparent scrim downstage of the dancers, and is perfectly synchronized with the live dances on stage. “Dance” was—and remains—one of the great collaborations between three leading, perfectly matched minimalists and conceptual artists. In this way, “Dance” embodies the essence of the reductionism movement of the 1960s and ’70s; it is an example of how that movement impacted art and culture.
Lucinda Childs in “Dance” (1979)
Photo © by Nathaniel Tileston
In 2009, “Dance” was revived by the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at New York’s Bard College. Although it has had other revivals, this one included a conversion of the original, dated 35-millimeter film into digital format, and generated enough interest to create a two-year international tour, including an engagement at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in October 2009:
Culture Vulture’s David Moreno caught up with Childs at her home a month before “Dance” will be performed in San Francisco. (Thanks to San Francisco Performances.) Although Childs has been in San Francisco as recently as 2005, to work with John Adams on his opera “Doctor Atomic,” the company hasn’t been here since the mid 1980s.
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David Moreno: Using film as an integral part of “Dance” was cutting edge in the late ’70s. Since then, the incorporation of video and film has become more commonplace in theater and dance, especially as technology improves. Where do you think the collaboration between dance and technology is headed?
Lucinda Childs: It’s an interesting time. Technology has made it easier for us to restore and work on the piece and to bring the sound quality up to the best possible level. And, practically speaking, digital makes touring “Dance” easier then when we were working with film. But, I don’t really know where it’s all going. We just had the idea of synchronizing the dancers on stage with the dancers in the film, and I’ve seen a lot of that since then. … With all of the touring and travel of the past 10 years, I hardly get to see enough of what is really going on. I’ve seen film used a lot, but I haven’t seen anything that radically different, or that caught my attention in a way that I haven’t seen already.
DM: What are the most significant changes that you’ve made in re staging “Dance”? Were all of those changes made in 2009 or are you continuing to make additions and subtractions as the piece continues to tour?
LC: It’s all exactly the same steps, exactly the same precision, precisely connecting to the music the same way, but the style of the dance back in the ’70s and the style of it now definitely has differences. … I don’t try to make one group match up with the other completely in terms of style because what’s important to me is the actual choreography. And that has not been changed at all because of the film … they were meant to be synchronized together.
DM: Are those additions something you’ve been interested in making for some time, or have they recently evolved?
LC: It was a bit back and forth, because we had had other revivals like in the ’90s for (a dance festival) in Europe and when we were part of the Serious Fun Festival in New York City. So, the wonderful thing about reviving it in this day and age was again, the technological advances. I was very happy about that. Plus, it’s a way of preserving the film. Prior to that there were only so many prints that we could make off of the original negative. The film is fragile now and it’s in storage and that’s nice. We can continue the production without having to worry about that.
DM: Both technology and dance technique have evolved over the years, and one can assume that today’s dance audiences as well are more sophisticated than they were in 1979. Can you say what those differences might be?
LC: Absolutely, because 30 years ago a lot of people hadn’t seen this kind of movement or heard this kind of music—it was controversial. Some people thought, “It’s not dance!” (laughing) and had radical reactions. And some liked it and were very much in favor of it, but there were people definitely not in favor of it. But now, I feel it’s more generally accepted. In fact, the public is more enthusiastic about it.
DM: You pioneered the use of repetition, patterning, and simple dance steps in choreography. Is there an emotional component to this style, or does this type of dance remain purely conceptual?
LC: Well, it’s completely conceptual and technical, but I feel any dancer on stage performing has their own presences and emotional … reaction to the music, which comes through without any story being told. They are physically there. They are physically part of what they are doing, and there is intensity to that precision of what they are doing is demanding. And, that intensity brings out an emotional quality.
DM: What are you attempting to communicate to the audience with this particular style of choreography?
LC: Well, it’s really completely abstract, but in a poetic way. I’m moved by Philip’s music and I’m inspired by the music, so for me the movement is really meant to be there. Because of the quality of what I feel should be done with the music, and the fact that there is an interaction between the dancing and the music—a tension between those two different forms.
DM: Would you say that this is the legacy of the minimal-reductive-conceptual movement of the seminal 1960s and ’70s?
LC: Yes, I would suppose, because [Merce] Cunningham was the first major choreographer who avoided any orientation in his work and (kept it) completely abstract… He felt the dancing in and of itself was beautiful and didn’t need anything added to that.
DM: If you were creating “Dance” today, is there a particular contemporary artist and composer that you would want to work with?
LC: Well, I’ve worked with Philip Glass now for over 30 years. And, John Adams is another composer that I continue to work with. And, I’m always interested in finding what’s new, but I feel that there is still a considerable amount of music from those two composers that I’d very much like to work with.
DM: What about visual artists?
LC: I find that in the ’70s when we began collaborating, we tended to work with visual artists and adapt their ideas, or they would find a way to adapt their ideas to the theatrical experience—to the proscenium stage—and still keep their identity. LeWitt decided to work in film, which was marvelous because it worked so beautifully for us. But now I find that many of the people who design specifically for theater are interesting to work with because of their knowledge of the new technologies. There are so many new advantages that you didn’t have back then.
DM: Since you’re a diehard New Yorker, are there any West Coast dance troupes or choreographers that interest you?
LC: Well,…one of my former dancers is out there who has formed a company and I have, as yet, to see her work (laughing). I don’t even know the name of her group, but I’m hoping someday to see it (laughing). Then I can comment. We see very little (from the West Coast). In New York we get to see many European companies.
DM: Do you think there is less of a gap between the West Coast/East Coast dance communities? Has the divide gotten any better or is it as split as ever?
LC: When I was working on “Doctor Atomic” [the opera], I was very pleasantly surprised how many professionals showed up for the audition. And, many of them said they were looking for a company situation—for a more permanent situation—which made it seem like there were not so many modern troupes out there…
DM: You’ve been working with operas for some time now. Is this a preference?
LC: No, no, no… It just came about that I was invited to work on the reduction of “Salome” in Salzburg, which just happened to coincide with one of the revivals of “Einstein on the Beach.” It turned out to be a really good experience. I enjoyed working with singers because we share knowledge of the music that is different from the director’s approach. I’ve continued to work with dancers who have been hired on a production, or at other times, just with singers. It’s something I’ve enjoyed and has opened up my eyes to working with classical composers.
DM: Is there a difference in the creative process, or stress level, in working on an opera as opposed to your own work?
LC: Oh, yes. I feel that if especially you’re working with a singer, they are singing. The movement has to be right for them, work for them. And, I don’t find that a limitation. It’s a challenge that I enjoy—to give them something that puts them in a visually important role, as much as what they are singing. It extends their experience as a performer.
DM: Although you were last in the Bay Area about six years ago, to work with John Adams, your troupe hasn’t been here since the late ’80s. I know there is much excitement and anticipation about your return. Will you be coming out as well?
LC: Oh, yes! I’m very much looking forward to it. I wouldn’t want to miss it!