‘Available Light,’ a performance art landmark, makes the leap from 1983 to 2015
Frank Gehry remembers the day in 1983 that choreographer Lucinda Childs invited him to her studio.
“I sat in a corner, and she danced privately for me for an hour or so,” he recalls. “It was probably one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life.”
But memory is a slippery beast.
It darts in and out of the mind’s shadows, over years and decades, until one day it emerges, changed, representing a new truth. Such is the case with “Available Light,” a performance art piece by Childs, for which Gehry designed the set after that memorable afternoon in Childs’ studio.
First mounted in 1983 as part of the opening of MOCA’s Temporary Contemporary (later renamed the Geffen Contemporary) in downtown Los Angeles, “Available Light” was conceived by the acclaimed postmodern choreographer to a score by minimalist composer John Adams. The piece is being reconstructed for an international tour that will stage its premiere Friday at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Not surprisingly, the show’s three creators all have somewhat different recollections of what constituted the original. As they bring their perspectives to bear more than 30 years later, they are not just restaging a historical document of movement, design and music; they are producing a fresh piece of art, molded by a new space, vastly updated technology and different dancers.
“If I go there now and look for ‘Available Light,’ I can’t find it in my memory,” Gehry says of the Temporary Contemporary performance. “I know it was there, but I can’t remember how it was there — how we put it there.”
What they put inside the warehouse was a piece that inspired lavish praise from many in the L.A. art scene, along with the ire of Times art critic William Wilson, who wrote with biting sarcasm in 1983: “The Temporary Contemporary has opened with the form considered the ne plus ultra of the avant-garde, the frontier of the cutting edge: Performance Art.”
Times writer Craig Bromberg had kinder words for “Available Light” in a profile of Childs. He described the dance as being about the “abstraction of time and space through movement.”
The work unfolded on Gehry’s split-level, asymmetrical stage made of unfinished lumber, curtains and chain link. Childs and 11 dancers, clad in black, red or white jumpsuits with slits in the arms and legs, spun in what Bromberg described as “precisely ordered, continually changing patterns of diamonds and half circles” to Adams’ lively music.
Childs’ memory of the performance itself is the most clear, largely thanks to sketches she refers to as “scores,” drawings of the dance from an overhead point of view. They map out the progression of the performance, section by section, showing the dancers’ relationship to one another, the space and their assigned movements. Thanks to these documents and a film of the original, Childs says she was able to stay remarkably faithful to what once was.
But that doesn’t mean 2015 audiences will perceive it in the same way.
“Audiences then were shocked and had never seen this kind of work before,” Childs says. “I don’t feel that’s the case now. People come with an idea of what they are going to see.”
If the originators of “Available Light” thought they would one day be considered groundbreaking artists, Gehry says, “We would’ve run for the hills. Nobody ever presumes that. We wait about 30 or 40 years and look back and say, ‘Yeah, maybe.’”
Adams is also wary of grandiose statements about the nature of the work and its significance, pointing to composer John Cage’s collaborations with choreographer Merce Cunningham in the 1950s. There is nothing new under the sun, he said. Just modern iterations, like this updated version of “Available Light,” of which he is very proud.
“What I find interesting is that it was a period where collaborating artists tended to give each other a great deal of creative freedom,” Adams says. “Lucinda basically said to me, ‘You can do anything you want.’ In retrospect I think she was expecting something more pulse-driven, but it was terrific to watch the way she internalized it.”
One of the few intentional changes made to “Available Light” has been Adams’ additions to the score, “A few windows of pulsation for the dancers to hold on to,” he says.
After all, music adds vital shape to the dance. Adams originally created a multichannel electronic piece using synthesizers before synthesizers became “cold and digital.” He then composed music for brass instruments, which he recorded in a studio in San Francisco. Those tracks were mixed in with the electronic sounds.
“I think its very unique in that sense,” Adams says.
As for Gehry, his new stage has been made to hit the road. It will look similar to the original and have the same proportions, but audiences won’t be able to view it from four sides, as they did at the Temporary Contemporary.
“This is a piece of L.A. history and L.A. culture,” the Music Center’s vice president of programming, Renae Williams Niles, says of the show, which is being presented in conjunction with the Los Angeles Philharmonic as part of the “Next on Grand” series. “We don’t get the opportunity to revisit things like this often enough.”
This is true, although revivals of live shows, like remakes of classic movies, are becoming more common. Childs, for example, comes to “Available Light” after a successful restaging of the 1976 Philip Glass-Robert Wilson opera “Einstein on the Beach,” for which she served as the lead choreographer and performer.
Childs performed in the original “Available Light,” but she won’t appear this time.
“I’m turning 75,” she says. “I still demonstrate all the movement, but I’m not performing anymore.”
Her part will be transferred among different dancers, and that will, of course, result in a ripple in the re-creation, a new memory squarely rooted where it belongs: in 2015.
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Tickets: $27.50 to $137.50
Info: (323) 850-2000, https://www.laphil.com
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