New York

Lucinda Childs and Company, and Laura Dean and Company

Recent performances by Lucinda Childs and Company and by Laura Dean and Company unavoidably evoke comparison. Both Childs and Dean employ highly legible structures for movement, including the use of immediately recognizable, geometricized floor plans, and a minimal, i.e., easily denumerable, vocabulary of steps. This somewhat broad descriptive similarity is accentuated by a common intent to divest dances of narrative or symbolic value. Both also forsake the use of music so that movement is not “read” as an illustration of a score. Representational values are replaced with an exploration of perceptual and cognitive themes. In this respect, both Dean and Childs are immediately comprehensible in terms of concerns of contemporary painting, music, and filmmaking.

Untitled Trio, first performed at Judson Memorial Church in 1968 and then revised in 1973, opened Childs’ recent performances. It is a work in three sections. Performed by three dancers, the first section emphasizes compositional rather than performative elements. The steps include such movements as ordinary walking, sit-ups, and push-ups. Such movements are articulated through a basic temporal pattern which synchronizes the movements of two of the dancers while the third is set apart either in terms of his or her gestures or orientation. The dance has the compositional clarity of an abstract ballet by Balanchine without its performative attractions. That is, none of the vocabulary of steps Childs uses here gives the appearance of being as physically challenging as working on point or as dangerous as a jeté. Rather, Childs substitutes a concern with suspense derived from performance with suspense derived from structure.

The three dancers cross the floor. They sit. Two face the third. They roll over. Now the third dancer and one of the previous pair constitute a new set—two on their stomachs, the remaining dancer on his back. The three dancers propose themselves as three elements in a field that is constantly reordered by the same two-to-one operation. There are points when all three dancers are synchronized. These are moments fraught with expectation of the mode in which the composition will be regrouped. Centrifugal movements also engender excitement. The dance cannot be comprehended in a glance because of the distance from dancer to dancer. Scanning from dancer to dancer raises the possibility of missing sight of the moment when the field is restructured. This dance is by way of an invitation for intellect and eye to conspire to designate each punctuation of movement by structure.

The second section of Untitled Trio projects a straight line diagonally across the dance space. This line represents the limit of movement. The variety of movements is restricted to: a steady paced vigorous walk; lying in a prone stomach position; an about-face giant-step turn involving a landing with the leading footstamped against the floor; and a jump. Initially these steps are introduced to the line by means of the two-to-one framework of the first section. And throughout, the dance is punctuated by correspondences of movement between dancers. However, it is the linear pattern of the dance, rather than the correspondences of phrasing, that conditions attention. It becomes quite clear that the basic movements of the dance are being employed to literally measure the linear trajectory of the dance.

A center point is established by jumps. The distance from the center to the beginning point of the line is subdivided by stamp foot turns and jumps. Then there are further subdivisions. Questions emerge as to whether both halves of the line will be subdivided, and as to whether the dance will terminate, in mirror image, on the end point of the line. Points on the line that represent established subdivisions of previously measured segments evolve particular importance as extremely potential sites for individual, and synchronized stamp-foot turns and jumps. What seems intriguing about this dance is the way it supplies a mental map of its floor plan through which movement may be constantly referred. Movement conjures up the presence of a virtual line, with virtual points of subdivision, in such a way that the physically inexistent mental scheme is experienced almost with the force of a sensation.

The idea of the mental scheme is crucial to understanding the third section of Untitled Trio. Initially the dance area is divided into two zones. One zone begins with two dancers, the other with one. The dancers’ movements trace spherical forms across the floor. In some cases the vectors of these forms intersect, in some cases not. These figures can be traced by three movements: a slow prone backward movement of raising the rump from the floor and lowering it; a fast paced forward walk; and a slow paced backward walk. The progress of the dance involves the counterpointing and synchronization of these movements as well as the movement of one of the dancers from one zone to the other.

It seems difficult to think about this dance except in terms of overhead composition. That is not to say that one literally imagines or pictures the dance from overhead. Nevertheless, the best Gestalt of movement is in terms of orbits which are most easily grasped by reference to an overall overhead mapping. These orbits can move toward each other or away. They can move at different speeds. The eye-level complexity of gesture and tempo gives way to an impulse to resolve complexity through the simpler model of overhead design.

In the last section of Untitled Trio, the slow pace of certain orbits threatens the spectator’s sense of structure. In this respect, Calico Mingling, 1973, represents the contrary. In Calico Mingling, the exuberant pace makes auditing the dance as a whole a challenging task. It is quite easy to lose oneself in the performance of a single dancer or to be excited simply by the presence of so much activity.

The dance has four performers. It is organized according to three movements—a circle, a line, and a hemisphere. These movements are walked quickly in distances measuring six paces for the line and hemisphere and 12 paces for the circle. These movements may either be forward or backward as well. There are moments when dancers seem on collision courses, and moments when several dancers seem in synchronization both as regards direction and phrasing.

The speed of the dancers is intensified by the sound of their feet hitting the floor. There is a great deal of energy and complexity. As in the last section of Untitled Trio, the dance, in all its activity, can be comprehended most simply through the mediation of abstract constructs. One may scan from one side of the room to another, inferring the overall composition from three steps here, four steps there, and perhaps two complete movements. Auditing the dance almost requires mediation of action through geometric, overhead forms.

What is especially interesting about this is the way it underscores the essentially conceptual nature of Childs’ work. Her choreography is not merely crisply and assertively composed; it is thought-provoking in a very basic sense of cognition. It addresses the audience in terms of schematizations, predictions, and retrodictions (i.e., retracings) of movement. The spectator seems distanced from the activity of the dance in favor of the plan of the dance. The perception of movement is rerouted by means of categories of movement in such a way that the structure of the dance becomes the actively predominant element of experience. In this sense, the concern with overhead composition is a means of proposing an essentially contemplative, intellectual relationship between dancer and spectator.

Of course, the mere presence of a legible floor plan does not predetermine the contemplative response to Childs’ choreography. Also important is the fact that the variety of simultaneous movements is complex enough to warrant reduction to abstract models. That is, understanding is added to perception by reference to constructs.

In the work of Laura Dean, one also finds the use of geometric floor plans. But here composition seems to function as a discipline to movement. Laura Dean’s dances are phrased even more repetitively than Childs’, and there are fewer steps involved. An eye-level perspective is quite adequate for the spectator, and, though these dances are composed in terms of overhead forms, recourse to the overhead view rarely involves the constitutive dimension found in Lucinda Childs. This is not a criticism of Dean, however. She has other uses for the geometric format.

In Stamping Dance, 1971, the circle provides the basic pattern of composition. The dance begins with a single, circular movement involving four dancers. The dancers break off from this large circle to form four independent, smaller circles. The basic step is a stamping step with the outside foot, investing the pace of the dance with rhythm. There is a ritual simplicity here, and the repetitive sound and movement suggest a tribal or primitive source of inspiration. The line of attack is predominantly sensual rather than intellectual.

In Dean’s Changing Pattern Steady Pulse, one finds a direct concern with performance. The dance involves two parallel columns of performers, rhythmically clapping and stamping. Members of each column enter the space between the columns spinning like whirling dervishes and tracing a circle between. the parallel columns. The reentry of the dervishes into the columns moves the columns along the floor. The dance terminates when this operation, successively repeated, moves the columns from one end of the auditorium to the other.

This dance suggests origins in folk forms. It has a communal aspect unavoidably accentuated by the smiles of some of the dancers. The floor plan, like that of a square dance, does not change shape. In this sense the shape serves as a constant discipline for movement, i.e., a kind of limit. The parallel columns serve as well as a border, constantly threatened by the centrifugal thrust of the whirling dervishes. The dervish movement is ostensibly difficult to execute in the constrained space between the columns. Indeed, the men in the troupe seemed especially uncomfortable with it. The difficulty of this step plus the general speed of the dance to some extent made its performance a feat, and in that respect its execution afforded a physical release of tension rather than a contemplative response.

A dance that makes Dean’s concern with physicality immediately apparent is Jumping Dance, 1973. This is an extremely remarkable if not brilliant piece of choreography. Its subject matter is physical exertion. Its shape is a rectangle measuring three dancers in width and four in length, staggered so that the tallest are in the back row. The dancers jump up and down in unison. Landing, they shout “ha.” The dancers jump as long as they choose. They may stop jumping altogether. Or, they may stop, rest, and then begin jumping again. The dance terminates when all the dancers cease jumping.

What is amazing about these simple rules is the range of perceptual experience they propose within the narrow structure of the dance. The initial moment is quite arresting in that the uniform jumping, and the strange sound of the landing, condition a response to the ensemble as a mass or an object.

As the jumping continues and the first dancer rests, the actual realization of a change in the pattern is preceded by a sense of change. One first senses a difference in the contour of the mass. Finding the point of change involves shifting a holistic perception to attention to the part which, in turn, is intensified by a simultaneous shift from perception of object qualities to person qualities. The sensation of this shift of attention provides an almost inexhaustible source of pleasure that the spectator may continually renew by actively keeping track of starts and stops.

The exact moment of starts and stops is not systematized. The dancers’ decisions in these matters are unpredictable events in an otherwise completely structured dance. They serve as a source of surprise and as an impetus to careful attention. In this respect, they represent an extremely canny incorporation of aleatoric elements.

The dance also sustains psychological interests. The whole/part opposition may recede as a primary locus of interest as the spectator begins to formulate ideas about the characters of various dancers. One dancer may start and stop regularly. She is pacing herself prudently. Some of the dancers are fanatics. One woman, a fair-skinned blonde, jumps continuously until her face is blood red. She is the last woman still jumping. One has the sense that she is jumping in competition with the men. The dance as it goes on lends itself to audience identification so that by the end there is an undeniable admiration for the jumping prowess of the dancers.

Dean’s concern with mass forms is also in evidence in her Great Circle Dance, 1972. This dance involves ten dancers revolving in four close concentric circles. The dancers walk or rather shuffle in short, fast steps producing a soft, swishing sound. At points, they reverse their direction, the outer circles successively turning about-face. The dance terminates as the dancers gradually break off their circular pathways in an arms-extended, dervishlike movement.

The overall plan of the dance seems to be the move from the rotation of the mass to the rotation of the individual. Perhaps this dance suggests a metaphoric structure as the astral dervishes break away from the mass. Whether or not this is the case, the shift from mass rotation to the individual dervishes affords a moment of physical beauty subtly intensified by the change in sound. As the dancers break off the great circle the shuffling dies down, replaced by the sound of the dancers’ costumes. The shift is as striking as the transition to silence in Jumping Dance.

To suggest a strict dichotomy between Dean and Childs according to a “physical-versus-conceptual” opposition would be misleading. In Great Circle Dance, there is much food for thought. One might, for instance, attempt to analyze the count patterns of the different concentric circles. Likewise, in Childs’ work one finds dances concerned with themes of performance, such as presence and balance.

Childs’ Checkered Drift, 1973, engages two dancers in a theme of balance. There are three basic movements performed either in synchronization or in contrast by the two dancers. The first is a giant step which is used for position changes. This movement involves leading with a foot momentarily suspended in mid-air. The step is a mild threat to balance, and the dancer raises his arms to keep steady. This position change can lead to another position change, or, to the next step which begins by balancing on one foot, tensing the body against gravity. Finally, the dancer tips, breaking his fall with his hands. The body remains rigid in this fall so the raised leg of the initial phase is still raised, though, now, rather than parallel to the floor, it is at a 45° slope. The last stage of the fall prepares for the third movement. The body lowers. The raised leg bends forward. And the dancer reorients himself to gravity through the posture of a sprint. From the sprint, the dancer stands, ready for the next giant step. The basic operations are position change, fall, and recovery. Balance, and the different levels of energy needed to maintain balance in each position, supply the subject matter of the dance.

In Particular Reel, 1973, a solo, Childs moves back and forth across the dance space tracing a series of parallel lines on the floor. She starts at one end of the room passing from one side to the other until after more than 20 passes she has reached the other end of the dance space. Her steps involve continual clockwise and counterclockwise turns. This “reeling” gesture, however, occurs at a steady, deliberate pace that suggests slow motion. Her reels are combined with equally slow gestures involving raising one or both arms.

At times pace and gesture combine to give the sense that she is being pulled or blown. Other movements suggest direct personal agency. Moreover, the same movement may change value depending on the distance from spectator to dancer. Extending an arm may seem an active gesture from afar. But that same gesture, when Childs is close, may strike one as passive if one notes the way Childs’ eyes follow her hand as if led by an unseen force. As well, an action performed at a distance may seem effortless. That same action close-by may be fraught with physical tension.

The basic design of the dance is the successive presentation and withdrawal of the soloist from one side of the room, which, of course, entails a simultaneous withdrawal and presentation to the other side. The soloist is always receding from one sector of the audience while approaching another. Both the withdrawal and approach of this presence is dramatic. But the double aspect of this operation has a distancing effect as well. One is not only struck by the very different qualities of the dance close-by and afar, but also by the realization that one’s opposite number is experiencing the same operation in reverse. Each movement is scrutinized speculatively in terms of what is seen by the individual spectator and in terms of how it might be seen by spectators at different vantage points. Childs seems to aim at provoking the imagination, at dislodging the spectator from a single viewpoint, toward a broader perspective in thought.

It is difficult to characterize the complexity of either Childs or Dean in a short review. Both are accomplished choreographers. Despite their reliance on minimal forms, the pieces in their recent recitals were consistently inventive. On a par with developments in other contemporary art forms, Childs and Dean, through simplification, systematization, and structure, attempt to redefine the relationship between spectator and artwork. The terms of that relationship are radically esthetic, grounded unequivocally in promoting the active play of attention with the elements of performance.

Noel Carroll