New York

Lucinda Childs

Joyce Theater

“Decorative” was the worst possible insult to the experimental choreographers of the Judson Dance Theater in the ’60s: basics were of the essence. But surprisingly, of the three dance-by-numbers Post-Moderns—Trisha Brown, Laura Dean, and Lucinda Childs—it is the most severely reductive of the group, Childs, who has best reintroduced those theatrical elements stripped from dance by the Judson’s revolutionary agenda.

Since her featured appearance as a performer/choreographer in Robert Wilson’s and Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach, 1976, the Gesamtkunstwerk of Minimalism, Childs has added—in a succession of large-scale productions—stylish decor and costumes, musical accompaniment, proscenium staging, and an expanded movement vocabulary to her stringent, geometrically ordered choreography. But until this year’s premiere, Portraits in Reflection, Childs’ collaborators in a series of brilliant dance-theater pieces were artists whose extremely controlled conceptual conceits mirrored her own. For this new, evening-length work she assembled a large group of dissimilar contributors, using four unrelated composers—Elizabeth Swados, Michael Galasso, Michael Nyman, and Allen Shawn—several changes of costume by neo-Baroque designer Ronaldus Shamask, sets and slide projections by fashionably decadent photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and expressionistically lurid stage lighting by Gregory Meeh. Furthermore, all of Childs’ collaborators were allowed a previously verboten leeway in their influence on the dance.

The result was like letting a day-dreaming Carl Jung doodle away on a sheet of graph paper, then animating the final drawing. Like Jung’s pervasive symbolizing, Portraits in Reflection had both its moments of vague portention and its epiphanies of insight. Sexual symbols were everywhere, Mapplethorpe’s suggestive slides of flowers with spread petals—lush, contemporary fleurs du mal—being only the most blatant. Male dancers wore shiny metal triangles at their waists, the points directed at their crotches. Childs herself appeared once as a generalized “goddess,” in a Martha Graham-like getup complete with crescent headdress and wands attached to her waist. The heavily gelled side lighting, the occasionally popping strobe lights, the saturated colors in Mapplethorpe’s projections—all gave the dance a strongly suggestive emotional atmosphere.

The import of all this exaggerated drama was more than a little ambiguous; the different scores used in each of the dance’s four movements also gave scattershot clues. While each composer used harpischords and/or violins, giving the proceedings a formal air, the mood varied from Swados’ bland enthusiasm to Galasso’s neo-Bachian meditations, from Nyman’s exhilarating Celtic melodies to Shawn’s jiglike snatches of tunes. The choreography itself told its own refractive story, beginning with a duet by performers in spare black costumes and ending with swirling, dizzyingly manipulated groupings of 12 dancers clothed in saillike panels that they alternately folded and brandished.

At times, these “portraits” seemed like so much hothouse posturing, mathematical gestures wrapped in expressionist dress. At other times, the disparate elements came together, producing, for Childs, a new and often thrilling dramatic effect. I remember one especially affective moment in the “Flowers” section when a beautiful, flowing arm motion, something like a delicate salute to the skies, was repeated en masse by the ensemble, while a yearning adagio by Nyman combined with Mapplethorpe’s seductive photographs to produce a few minutes of mesmerizing transcendence. Then, Portraits in Reflection coalesced into total theater.

John Howell