Processing minimalism, then and now

Lucinda_0262_3The world of contemporary dance offers many interpretations of the medium. Some choreographers choose to ground their compositions in breath and the natural motions of the body. Others choose to focus on the process of dance, from composition to consumption. This season’s CenterSeries at the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance opened with a strong example of the latter, a performance choreographed by Lucinda Childs, performed by the Lucinda Childs Dance Company, and featuring the music of Philip Glass with set design and video by the late Sol LeWitt.

Since graduating with a major in dance from Sarah Lawrence in 1962, Lucinda Childs has worked with numerous artists, composers and choreographers. She has composed pieces for many operas and also directed productions herself. Considered by many to be one of the indisputably great talents of contemporary dance, Childs was the recipient of the rank of “Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres,” an honor from the French government, and of a Guggenheim Fellowship, awarded for DANCE, the work performed this past weekend on the MainStage.

The movements of the dancers in the three pieces of DANCE were deceptively simple: Their centers anchored their limbs but did not bend or twist to any great degree. At times there were fluidity and reach in their arms, as in “Dance No. 2,” and the composition of these moves resulted in complex and challenging pieces. In “Dance No. 1,” one pair crossed the stage at a time, alternating entrances from stage left and stage right. Childs quickly complicated this premise by setting each pair’s movements slightly off the other’s motions. Then, unexpectedly, one pair leapt out from stage left and crossed the pair before it.

Sol LeWitt’s set piece focused the audience’s attention on the use of space. LeWitt, whose geometrical, colorful wall paintings are now on permanent display at MASS MoCA, also experimented with photography, sculpture and, as in his work for DANCE, film. Projected onto a giant screen downstage of the dancers, the film periodically appeared as another exploration of the motion onstage. Originally shot in 1979, the black and white film featured the work’s original dancers and a floor designed by LeWitt. At one moment the live and filmed dances competed for the audience’s eyes, and the next, one demanded more attention than the other.

Simultaneously, the same choreography appeared in the two mediums, often from two different angles. This technique proved especially illuminating, as it forced the audience to imagine the dance through multiple lenses. To see the dance from a bird’s-eye view on film called to mind the experience of the dancers as they moved in patterns across the stage. This view also highlighted Childs’ use of geometry throughout her pieces.

LeWitt’s floor design of simple black and white boxes emphasized the patterns in the trajectories of individual dancers. The camera choices also added effect; the onscreen dancers sometimes appeared larger than life in close-ups, or farther from the lens, secondary to the live performance upstage. Even when not in use, the sheer screen onto which the film was projected separated the action onstage from the rest of the theater.

Complementing LeWitt’s creation and Childs’ choreography, the aesthetic onstage was minimalist. Aside from the film screen, there were no additional set pieces. The dancers themselves wore all white, men and women alike in the same costume. The performers’ slender physiques lent themselves to an androgynous look that diverted attention from any individuality or particular characteristics of a single dancer. Even the soloist in Dance No. 2 lacked her own unique character, instead echoing that of Childs, the onscreen original, who loomed at times above and at times in front of her.

Childs’ work did not focus on the physicality or personality of those onstage. Rather, her choreography explored the process of dancing and considered questions such as: What goes into a phrase? What is the relationship between a dancer and the space through which he moves? It is this endeavor that made her work challenging and engaging. While not for those interested in a narrative-based or highly physical performance, Childs’ work has much to say and is the sort of work that continues to say something even after repeated viewings.