“Dance” presents the elegance of geometry – simple, clean, and clear. Performers trace crisp patterns in space, executing phrases repeated with unfailing precision. Constructed through a mathematical layering of movement and music, the geometry of “Dance” and its repetition linger. Echoing afterwards as audience members pick their way through seats and steps, this repetition presses on the mind. For some of us, the momentum propels our bodies as we steer through crowds to gather in the Walker’s balcony bar for a post-performance discussion. This blog highlights themes from that conversation, the last of this season’s SpeakEasy series.
The performance begins confronting the audience with the paradox of abstract dance. An art form of the body – with all the connotations of biography, narrative, specificity, and imperfect humanness associated with the body – is deployed in a context and fashion stripped of these elements. Through passes too brief to allow the eye to rest on one performer, unisex costumes that reject the specificity of character, and the cool, focused countenance of the performers, “Dance” opens with a wash of movement that disperses the gaze of the audience. Rather than elevating the performer as individual, the soloist commanding attention as the body pours forth, elaborates, and variously articulates its physical monologue, Lucinda Childs places her emphasis on the ensemble as it draws phrases in time and space. Initially figures of anonymity, however, Childs’ dancers become familiar as they rotate through their passes. Glimpsed for a moment, it is through the very repetition that may at first seem to set them at a distance that they become recognizable. A smile curves, a step springs, and out of the abstract emerges the human. This development reaches its apex at the shift to the second piece. The music rolls in continual waves, yet a tension is established through the contrast of this musical momentum and the image of a lone Lucinda Childs anchoring the moment and gazing calmly forward.
Throughout the evening, patterns in film layer upon patterns on-stage as the dancers skip, glissade and pivot through Philip Glass’ “sea of sound” and Sol LeWitt’s hazy film. LeWitt is known for his combinations and variations of the white, open-sided cube as well as his wall drawings, sets of instructions for elaborate designs conceived by the artist and executed by teams of museum workers. In both his direction of bodies that produce wall drawings and his addition of a set of filmed performers in “Dance,” the visual artist becomes choreographer. This contribution to “Dance” builds to a sequence near the end of the evening where the film is projected in equal scale over the dancers, partnering each performer with a filmic ghost. The past chases the present, the present follows the past and the chasm of time is collapsed as in this brief moment history takes its place alongside the present that is its progeny.
Despite the central role of filmed dancers from 1979, what remains is perhaps not the dominance of that performance, but rather its ephemerality. Controversial in its day, audiences today cannot experience “Dance” as it was. That moment, that time, and those performances have passed, just as this remount, too, will pass into memory. Avoiding the forward thrust of linear narrative, the transience of “Dance” is heightened by its use of repetition, achieving momentum through a nuanced exploration of a continual present. The repeated motions are ever-changing, each time renewed as they both press forward and cycle back, drawing our attention to each moment as it quickly flickers on-stage and fades into memory.
Since 1979, Philip Glass has risen to fame not only in music circles, but also among dance audiences familiar with his collaborations with choreographers like Twyla Tharp in the 1980s. Sol LeWitt’s work appears in museums around the world, including an on-going retrospective at the Walker Art Center. The pedestrian skips and pivots of Childs’ early work are today performed with balletic power and the Judson Dance Theater from which she emerged has achieved a place of significance in the annals of dance history. As one audience member commented, part of the beauty of the filmed dancers is that they were unaware of what this piece would become to future audiences. Part of the beauty of those performing the piece today is that they know.