PRINT January 1980

“Dance”: Lucinda Childs, Philip Glass and Sol LeWitt

NO MATTER HOW THEY SUCCEED or fail in the particulars of their collaborative effort, Lucinda Childs, Philip Glass and Sol LeWitt have created an emotionally eloquent event in Dance, performed in December at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, combining at a few moments in rare peaks of pure physical joy. That the dance goes with the music which goes with LeWitt’s film is arguable. You’d have to survey those who left throughout the performance for violent negative reactions. Those who stayed to give standing ovations would be harder pressed to denigrate the collaboration. Beyond choreography or scoring, beyond the inclusion of film as a third partner, the collaboration succeeds brilliantly on a more difficult abstract level, combining space, time and sound into a single physical unit—a packaged visual/aural building block used as a tool for the artist—as valid and simple as paint and brush.

These units adjust the way we view the piece, and they are the most revolutionary aspect of Dance. Playing with a simultaneity of event, Dance continues an avant-garde tradition seen in other facets of performance. In the theatre of Richard Foreman when actors rush through short vignettes of scenes the sparseness of dialogue, the percussive accompaniment of gongs and bells and blasts of sound freeze moments of the play. Thus we view not continual narrative or storyline, but a succession of quick moments, instantly perceived events. Traditional notions of viewing are suspended. Instead a kind of “vertical viewing” emerges, a way of letting physically disparate elements (a single musical note, a snatch of movement, a syllable of a word) combine as notes in a chord would combine, piled on top of each other at specific instants. Instead of waiting for a continuity of each element to flow (a melody line, a line of dialogue, a completed gesture) we are forced to grasp successions of chords sounding one after the other. The result in a Foreman piece is a theatre of implication. The chord is given, and the viewer reacts as it sounds through emotional and visual clues. Without waiting for a completed story line he experiences bits of the story moment by moment, like a play-by-play account of a completed game. The responses are not always clear and probably not universal, for each viewer draws on his own attitudes and experiences to interpret the impact of each chord. It’s a complex, active form of viewing, highly demanding, yet it can be done on a subconscious level by letting the flow of scenes suggest a cumulative interpretation.

Back in the ’60s when multimedia happenings began, Merce Cunningham deliberately exploited the idea of simultaneous events. But about two years ago, Cunningham and Meredith Monk combined efforts at Dance Umbrella in a performance that left ’60s notions behind and presaged Dance. They treated the dance and the music as totally separate entities that happened to be going on at the same time, so that chance chords (combined units of movement and sound) resulted. The dancers performed their tightly structured pieces silently. Monk’s music—either solo voice or trio, along with resonating glass or organ—came in at times to play while the dance proceeded but did not attempt to blend the movement beforehand or to plan a traditional accompaniment. At any given instant a dance movement might coincide with a musical sound. A collision would occur, or perhaps a blending or a contradiction. The results were exciting by their unpredictability. More importantly, the collaboration succeeded not as two complementary elements running parallel, but as individual instants of random happenings—viewed in vertical chords as each minute dance/sound event was spontaneously born.

The Glass/Childs collaboration differs in intent since Childs choreographed to the score, but actually she has designed not a dance to weave in and out of a musical theme, but one tightly structured within the structure of the music itself. Since both Childs and Glass work modularly and repetitively the two interlock naturally as they did in Einstein on the Beach last year. This time around, however, the music is honed down to a sweeter melody line less ponderous than the operatic Einstein, revealing a deeper joyousness. The dancing flies to this new buoyancy, lifted off the ground by a consistent urgency. In relentless anticipation dancers whirl in never-ending entrances and exits across the stage. Moving like atomic particles along irrevocable and predetermined paths they’re spewed out at the wings from either side, converging momentarily to draw patterns with each other as they pass. Their overlappings, their passes, their repetitions occur this time in planned modules—series of vertical units as the sound/dance spells out series of directional movements.

Always the movements are punctuated by brief pauses, by sudden movements backward, by Childs’ characteristic angular arm or wrist motions in a kind of one-step-forward, two-steps-back routine that proceeds nevertheless forward. The work allows for moments of total stillness also, leaving the stage momentarily bare while the music repeats. These moments are like energized spaces, carried on by the momentum of the colored light on the stage and the sound itself. The ensemble dancing is a total contrast, often astounding in its complexity, setting dancers into multiple layers of overlapping motions, or dashing off a spare swift line as pairs casually leap across the stage.

The impact of the dance/music and its pacing is formidable.The impact of LeWitt’s film (projected on a scrim drawn as a transparent curtain in front of the stage) can be revolutionary in the way it reshapes space, compacts dimensionality. Using film’s innate ability to distance an experience, LeWitt has simply recorded the dances from different angles, in longshot or in close-up. Yet projected in sync with the live dancers the fuzzy, enlarged images suddenly create a “fourth dimension.” Reality dances with nonreality, real-time exists simultaneously with illusionistic time. Visually striking, the shadowy figures mirror themselves, becoming not performers but the embodiment of movement. The film’s use is not perfect. At times it feels like an experiment, as LeWitt tries first a split screen, then a partial screen, then a multiple screen. In this sense his contribution seems the weakest: it comes close to novelty. But when the camera holds a close-up of the dancers and begins moving with them across stage as the real dancers repeat the movement behind, it is as if movement itself has been newly created. In extreme close-up, with only portions of torsos and arms flitting by, its as if each particle contained within the dancer’s motion is essential to the whole action, and therefore complete in itself. Again, these split-second events of partial gesture combine with the sound echoes like chords. By focusing on any portion of the motion or shifting the perspective the film documents the structures as they occur.

As if realizing this powerful effect, the film includes still shots—either blow-ups of a single dancer which begin and end the program, or series shots. In one solo, as Childs describes a circle around the stage, the film captures slices of that movement in stills. Catching frozen gestures, each photographic image does two things. First, it conveys the off-handed beauty of the moving body in a way that clarifies Childs’ infatuation with skipping and walking as dance movements. The stills show how poignantly pure such illusive movements are.

Secondly, the stills illustrate the process of movement. Any instant within a gesture could be isolated or frozen at random. Each completed gesture is made up of hundreds of such continuous elements. In film animation, the artist draws each extreme of a movement—an arm at waist level and the arm at shoulder level. He then fills in the missing movements from one extreme to the other in a process known as in-betweening. The duration of each completed gesture determines how many in-between drawings are needed to create that time span. In many ways, dance is a process of in-betweening, of moving through a series of motions to complete extremes of gesture. In between are an infinitesimal series of connecting movements that shape the flow from one gesture to another. The still photos seem to recognize this process by capturing random peak actions, even as Childs herself passes by underneath. In this use the film is selecting chords, outlining the structure visually, emphasizing the importance of each such moment in the continuum of the work.

Besides altering our perception of the piece, however, the film also affects the spatial aspects of the performance. Flattening space, altering perceptions of the angles of the dance, combining several layers of activity into one or extending the depth of field, it plays games with accepted notions of depth. It also functions independently to create beautiful vignettes throughout the dance. Childs’ solo piece (danced in white) has one of the most striking openings in the performance. It is an extended moment of total stillness. A close-up of Childs dead-center, stock-still, dominates the scrim. Directly behind, Childs herself poses immobile. The music revolves through several completed phrases as she waits for her cue. The starkness of Childs as a single white column surrounded by the black of the stage area transforms her into a mythic column in space. The moment is none too long—the expectancy of her movement is as satisfying as the dance itself when it comes. As she dances, she disappears into blackness several times as the projected figure takes over, alternating between views of the action from our purely frontal vantage point and the several front-and-back views the film has to offer. This is probably the most fulfilling use of the film—giving it equal importance to the dancer.

Each moment of the collaboration could be dissected in this way—analyzing space, analyzing the structure of the dance itself, analyzing each movement of the dancer’s limb, analyzing the interplay between the dancer and the music, the dancer and the filmed dancer. The richness of such a complex amount of input is difficult to describe and probably shouldn’t be attempted. If anything, it should only hint at the majesty of the performance and emphasize that it is worth seeing, that it can create new perceptions on viewing not dance, not music, not film, but viewing totalities of such collaborative work which have as yet no name to describe them.

Deborah Perlberg