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Will art last, or is it strictly of its time? That’s always a question with new art, but the answer of necessity is slow in coming, and must be checked and perhaps revised as the generations pass. So one still cannot say that the beautiful, joyous, cunning 1979 collaborative work DANCE will last forever, but one can say that, 38 years after its premiere, it remains kinetically vital, visually challenging, and aurally propulsive towards spiritual uplift. Carolina Performing Arts presented the re-created work by choreographer Lucinda Childs, visual artist Sol LeWitt and composer Philip Glass in Memorial Hall as part of the ongoing Glass at 80 festival.
DANCE, 60 delightful minutes long, comprises three sections without breaks between: Dance I, for a mixed group; Dance II, a female solo (the Lucinda Childs part in the original); and Dance III, also for a mixed group – twelve dancers total. They dance without pause to the music written by Glass for each section (I and III performed on recordings by the Philip Glass Ensemble; II performed by Glass and Michael Riesman). The live dancers, all in white (costumes by A. Christina Giannini), performed behind a sheer scrim that served as a projection screen for LeWitt’s filmic images of the original dancers. There were still shots, but mostly there were dance sequences, so we saw the live dancers moving with and through the disembodied dancers of the film.
Although the stage floor was not marked with LeWitt’s famous gridding, the dance floor in the film was a white grid, and various camera angles offered a dizzying range of perspectives. A ghostly third layer of moving figures came from the film’s dancers being reflected off a dark wall. The film segments varied enormously in scale, as well as placement on the scrim. Sometimes the film dancers were huge, dwarfing the live dancers into dolls. Sometimes both were at the same scale. Sometimes the film, with its gridded floor, split the stage space horizontally, so the film dancers twirled “upstairs” from the live dancers, sometimes the film divided and split the space vertically. Some of the changes induced vertigo; some of them brought laughter.
The three collaborators worked in their respective arts to produce a flow of variation within a limited vocabulary. As with Glass’ music, Childs’ choreography is rich with small changes to the larger repetitive patterns, and is and was danced with the most intoxicating combination of precision and freedom. But more meaningfully to this viewer, the three artists worked together to make an artwork that draws its power from images of dance so ancient as to be archetypal – dance as communal expression, dance as celebration of innocent joy.
At the time she choreographed DANCE, Childs was exploring “natural” or “pedestrian” movement, and she uses those in DANCE, but all sleekly polished and controlled. Yet – this is a rare example of an artist actually retrieving the core of innocence out of the maw of sophisticated experience. The dancers in their white leotards, white dance trousers wide at the ankle, and flat, laced, white dance boots, all of a similar elegant body type, created lovely lines and excellently controlled geometries with their arms and legs, but the skipping, gliding, hopping and whirling (pant legs furling and ruffling out like morning glories) through the cycles and reverses of the music seemed to come straight from the spirits of young children.
This is exactly what’s missing from so much of today’s angst-ridden identity dances. The fun! The happiness! The sheer joy of moving beautifully!
And what is missing in today’s fascination with live video looping and image capture in conjunction with live dance is the level of imagination and craft that went into creating this film and fitting it with the live action. The film in all its variants is stunning, and messes with your perceptions in unexpected ways that all these tech-heavy, cable-strewn experiments in digital imaging have not yet managed.
Childs, Glass and LeWitt were all among the art avant-garde in their youth. LeWitt died in 2007, but Childs and Glass continue to push the forward edge of art in their 70s and 80s. It is wonderful that they are getting respect and admiration for their lifetimes of steady artmaking – as demonstrated by the Glass at 80 festival, and by the recent announcement that Childs will receive the American Dance Festival/Scripps Award for lifetime achievement at the ADF this summer. Two of her works will be set on ADF students, as part of ADF’s mission to serve and protect modern choreography, and will be performed late in the season.
The Glass at 80 festival events continue through February 10. Please see our calendar for details.