In a Seamless Performance, Lucinda Childs' Minimalism Stands the Test of Time

LUCINDA CHILDS is one of the incontestable giants of postmodern dance. Even in the most ungenerous quarters of the dance world, where reputations are regularly made and unmade, Ms. Childs is usually looked upon as a choreographer of brilliance, integrity, and originality. She is also a performer of exceptional talent. Many of us have particularly fond memories that span more than 15 years of her marvelous dancing in the Robert Wilson/Philip Glass production ``Einstein on the Beach,'' and of her splendid achievements in her own 1979 landmark opus ``Dance,'' a full-evening collaboration with visual artist Sol LeWitt. So it was especially interesting to have been on hand at the Harvard Summer Dance Center recently for the first revival in almost a decade of a portion of Childs's ``Dance.''

The question, of course, is how well does a classic opus of ``postmodern art'' stand up against the opportunism of time and fashion. In the case of Childs's revival of ``Dance No. 1,'' the answer is an unqualified ``beautifully!''

I must admit that I greatly missed the LeWitt photographic images that added an intricate visual counterpoint to the original presentation of ``Dance,'' when it was offered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1979. The notion of combining live movement with motion-picture and still photography of dancers has often been attempted but never with the profound artistic success of the Childs/ LeWitt collaboration. It achieved a fugal complexity rare in dance - a whole so clearly greater than the sum of its parts that Childs has evermore been called the Bach of modern dance. And so it is good news that Childs and LeWitt plan a full revival of their entire work ``Dance'' in the near future. On the other hand, the ``dismembered'' segment called ``Dance No. 1,'' though presented without the LeWitt images, certainly held its own.

In some respects, the version without photographic materials lent a purity of purpose and brilliance of concept to the Childs opus that was not as immediately apparent in the elaborate production of 1979. I suspect that this transparency is partially built upon the fact that we have grown increasingly familiar with the meditative redundancies of so-called Minimalism. Now we are easily drawn into this atmosphere. As ``pure'' dance, without photographic embellishments, ``Dance No. 1'' makes us vividly aware of the perpetual motion, kinetic repetition, subtle variation, and progression which, in the complex staging of the 1979 version, were sometimes obscured by both the novelty of Minimalism and the elaborations of the visual production.

The costumes for ``Dance No. 1'' by A. Christina Giannini were perfect in their simplicity. The performance of the Lucinda Childs Dance Company was matchless, as seamless an ensemble as one might encounter. And the lighting design of Howell Binkley provided a space so perfectly open and abstract that the ever-moving dancers seemed to exist for us beyond the limits of the physical stage, making their endless entrances and exits assume a truly perpetual and ritualistic impact.

The second piece on the program at the Loeb Drama Center was ``Calyx,'' a Childs work from 1987 with an engaging score by the Dutch composer Harry de Wit, and a somewhat cumbersome set by the Japanese artist Tadashi Kawamata. The handsome simplicity of Ms. Giannini's costumes for ``Dance No. 1'' was replaced in ``Calyx'' by highly pictorial designs that were curiously dated in their balletic fussiness. In fact, the entire concept of ``Calyx'' seemed heavily pictorial, both in its mood and the hint of a dramatic pretext. Despite the considerable handicaps of the visual production, Childs nonetheless achieved an intriguing and uncharacteristic movement vocabulary for ``Calyx,'' in which she was clearly striving for an extension of her intellectually thrilling and choreographically unique style.

The program closed with an American premi`ere entitled ``Mayday'' by Childs and composer Christian Wolff in collaboration with Sol LeWitt. From this piece, it seems clear that Childs is unwilling to imitate herself. Unlike most of her Minimalist associates, she refuses to recycle her earlier successes in an endless succession of rather predictably atmospheric and mesmeric showpieces for the New Age. To the contrary, her choreographic vision has become denser and more complex than it was in 1979.

Now her use of space can be quite arbitrary, and she often creates groupings and combinations with a kind of happenstance associated with an earlier mode of modern dance. All of these deviations in her manner are laudable, even when they clearly frustrate what we have come to want and to expect of Childs's art. But in the process of redefining her choreographic art, one hopes that Ms. Childs will not so completely abandon her prior frame of mind that she is often prompted to collaborate with composers like Christian Wolff, whose music for ``Mayday'' seemed wholly unsuited to the artistic sensibility that has made Childs one of the great originals in the performing arts.

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