Getting down to the bedrock of dance

As a dancer, choreographer, and thinker on the arts, Lucinda Childs loves order. You can see it in her work, with its strong sense of pattern and consistency.

But she has a playful streak, and she enjoys a challenge. That's why her newest work, a full-length dance called ''Available Light,'' will move away from the marked symmetry of her earlier pieces.

''The same precision is there,'' she told me recently. ''But the look is different. Things aren't so obvious - it's like having two patterns at once, so you don't see any pattern at all. Usually it's quite apparent what the relationships with the music are, and they change gradually. Here the contrasts are stronger. It might even look disorganized at times, though it isn't.''

Another thing Miss Childs enjoys is a good partnership. Although she initiated and coordinated it, ''Available Light'' is a three-member project with music by John Adams and decor by architect Frank O. Gehry. With such a trio of talents, the result could be as memorable as her ''Relative Calm,'' with its Jon Gibson score and Robert Wilson decor, or her ''Dance,'' with Philip Glass music and Sol Lewitt film; or even Wilson's opera ''Einstein on the Beach,'' which she helped choreograph.

''Available Light'' will have its premiere performances this Thursday through Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Then it will travel to New York for a four-day run (Oct. 27-30) in the ''Next Wave'' festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, sharing the bill with a new dance to Philip Glass's piece ''Mad Rush.''

The work's European bow is slated for Nov. 28-Dec. 4 at the Theatre de la Ville in Paris, as part of the Festival d'Automne. Also coming up is an eight-day Childs residency at the American Center in Paris beginning Nov. 21. And a Brooklyn Academy revival of ''Einstein'' will tour the United States in winter of 1984-85.

How did Lucinda Childs hit on her distinctive style with its elegant patterns , crystal-clear logic, and aggressive precision? I asked her recently in her lower-Manhattan loft, where she answered questions with a quiet, friendly, thoughtful tone that recalled some qualities of her dance work.

Her quest began, she says, with rebellion from an older generation - ''the people we associate with avant-garde music and conceptualization'' who preached the anything-goes, art-is-where-you-find-it philosophy of John Cage and his cohorts.

As a young member of the Judson Dance Theater, she had ''explored and dabbled in that area'' and been ''very influenced by Cage.'' But after five years she felt she had exhausted the possibilities of this research.

''There was a profound dead end in all of it,'' she remarks. ''When this dead end began to be perceived in the late '60s, it affected all the arts - emerging first in the visual art of, say, Sol Lewitt and later in dance and music.''

So she turned in exactly the opposite direction. ''I moved into a new world of throwing out all the tricks, getting rid of all the objects and monologues - all the things that aren't dance - and seeing what was left. I started to work with very basic things like walking and turning. I went back to a very simple vocabulary, and found a new world opening up for me. It felt infinite.''

This artistic journey is remarkably similar to that of composer Philip Glass, who also turned away from modernist mannerisms and looked for a music that was all muscle and bone, as basic as it could possibly be. Not surprisingly, Miss Childs has been drawn to his work, and has choreographed to it more than once. ''Yet we couldn't have made this kind of statement earlier,'' she says, ''because we needed the other people to come first and insist on questioning everything, turning everything upside down. That school had a built-in mechanism of self-exhaustion, but it gave us the highway we needed.''

She also recognizes that the evolution is still going on. ''People like John Adams are coming in,'' she says, ''and reacting against what is sometimes called the rigidity or strictness of the Glass-associated style.'' This, she feels, could be another turning point. Though she finds ''traces of the Glass sensibility'' in Adams's score for ''Available Light,'' she also finds ''dramatic, almost emotional moments'' and ''lots of variation.'' This has pulled her in different directions, and she says she likes the feeling. ''It isn't always as compatible as music I've worked with before,'' she muses. ''I've had to struggle with it in some ways. But I'm happy to do that. It's been a voluntary struggle,'' she concludes with a smile.

Adams's score is written for synthesizer and some instrumental sounds. The composer performs it ''live'' by mixing tracks and shifting levels on a preexisting tape. Working with him and architect Gehry has been tricky for Miss Childs because she's based in New York and they in California. ''One loses some momentum because of this enormous separation,'' she says, adding that Adams had never even seen her work before this collaboration began. But this posed no insoluble problems.

Looking at today's dance scene, she finds it very invigorating ''because of all the interrelationships that are taking place. Fifteen years ago, the modern dancers stayed on one side of the room, and the ballet dancers stayed on the other. If you went to modern class you didn't talk about your ballet class. Now there's an exchange going on. Some people deplore it. But I find it extremely exciting. . . .''

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