Dance review: Lucinda Childs revives ‘Dance’ at Royce Hall
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Say what you will about late-'70s style and disco decadence, a few dozen Manhattan blocks south of Studio 54 was the headquarters of High Minimalism. Avant-garde artists in all disciplines had their poverty and their ideas, as Merce Cunningham once put it. They lived in stripped-down lofts in then gritty SoHo and stripped down their work to essentials, sharing an aesthetic and lifestyle and openness to collaboration.
A racist and homophobic Chicago riot, July 12, 1979, is known as the day disco died an ignominious death. Meanwhile, Minimalism, idealistic and unfiltered, reached perhaps its pinnacle at the decade’s end with Lucinda Childs’ “Dance,” her choreography to Philip Glass’ “Dance Nos. 1–5” with filmed projections by the conceptual artist Sol LeWitt.
Friday night, Childs brought a revival of the first three parts of “Dance” to UCLA’s Royce Hall. It is a magnificent work on all levels. And it now includes a new level -- that of history.
“Dance” is geometry in action. Dancers in white leotards and pants designed by A. Christina Giannini cross and crisscross the stage, hopping and turning, severe and unsmiling and yet somehow jubilant. Music for keyboards, winds and voice epitomizes Glass at his most adrenaline-charged and addictive melodic and rhythmic pattern-making. LeWitt’s contribution is a ghostly monochrome film of the dancers on a grid, projected on a scrim in front of the stage. On screen, dancers can be large or small. They can freeze or vanish. They are shadows, not partners, of live performers. The element of color comes courtesy of Beverly Emmons’ lighting, muted at first, striking later on.
It is impossible to simply re-create “Dance” after three decades. LeWitt died in 2007, and his film is now a historical document. A new company dances against the images of predecessors who, thus, seem outside of time and space, occupying a fourth dimension. Talk about geometry in action!
Childs made the middle dance a solo for herself, accompanied by an organ solo, and that Friday night proved the most disorienting of all. Anne Lewis was the new soloist who danced behind a blown-up projection of the bewitching Childs on screen -- a figure of austere sculpted beauty who can hold so still she appears frozen until she blinks her eyes. Lewis is graceful and adept, less severe but herself.
Childs’ nine excellent young dancers have a virtuosic balletic quality that her original performers in 1979 could not quite equal. Gone, apparently, are the white sneakers. Now, these buoyant balletic dancers wore, I think, ballet shoes, although I couldn’t actually see them. UCLA’s scrim had a black border that blocked the feet from my seat in the 15th row of Royce. Maybe that is why so many people in front of me walked out during the work, which lasted less than an hour.
The sound was another disappointment. The commercial version of ‘Dance Nos. 1-5,’ recorded by Glass’ ensemble in the studio and long available on CD, has excellent sonic definition. Royce’s sound team thrust forth fuzzy instrumental textures and a distorted, disembodied bass that might have been boomed from a booth in Studio 54.
Ironically, this revival of “Dance” was made possible in part by the once lively UCLA Live. Childs’ company was put together two years ago for a revival of “Einstein on the Beach,” of which David Sefton, the venturesome former artistic director of the UCLA series, was an instigator and who was forced out last summer. With no appreciation for “Einstein” at UCLA, UC Berkeley jumped at the opportunity to host the West Coast premiere of the opera in 2012.
UCLA, at least, will finally will get a new and respected artistic director, Kristy Edmunds, in the fall. She cannot arrive a minute too soon. The house Friday was far from full. The program book was dedicated to fundraising, not art.
Then again, a little inconvenience in “Dance” doesn’t necessarily hurt. As struggling artists, Childs, Glass and LeWitt overcame their restricted circumstances through the exhilaration of purity and discipline. Audiences walked on them in the old days too. In 1979, “Dance” was a wonderful uplift for hard, dissolute times. So, too, in 2011.
-- Mark Swed