Lucinda Childs comes West

  • by Michael McDonagh
  • Tuesday April 26, 2011
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By phone from Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, choreographer Lucinda Childs discussed her work, especially her 1979 evening-length collaboration with late artist Sol LeWitt and very-much-alive composer Philip Glass, Dance, which she and her company are bringing to San Francisco's Novellus Theater at YBCA April 28-30, as the first stop on their five-city California tour of the work, the only piece on the program.

Is she excited? "Oh sure," Childs replies in a light but entirely focused voice. "First of all, I haven't had a group in several years, and I haven't been out there since John Adams' opera Doctor Atomic in 2007."

But how did Childs make Dance happen? Glass, whom she'd known since they'd done Robert Wilson's landmark opera Einstein on the Beach in 1976 �" Glass wrote the music, she danced, contributed texts, and performed as an actress �" and Childs decided to do another piece together. LeWitt, with whom the two performing artists shared common aesthetic ground in the downtown New York arts world, hadn't worked in the theatre before. But they trusted their instincts. "And so we invited Sol at the very beginning because we wanted to have him as a collaborator. He came to the rehearsals �" Philip had written the music first �" and chose Lisa Rinzler to shoot Dance, and he picked out scenes he wanted to film in 35mm black-and-white, with overhead angles, the dancers in costume. He worked in a very mathematical, precise way, with a mathematical structure over Philip's structure. So there was Philip's score, my score for the dancers �" the storyboard was shown at the Whitney �" and Sol's visual score." They'll be using LeWitt's   restored original film here.

That film, which projected a grid onto the stage for the dancers to dance on as its only decor, was shown on a scrim, and Childs says, "We're bringing our own scrim in a fiberglass container. Sometimes you see just dancing, and sometimes you just see film." The intention throughout is to play with the audience's sense of time, place, and scale, a central tenet of the trio's minimalist aesthetic, which uses simple, repetitive forms, or in Childs' case, pedestrian gestures like walking, which accumulate and/or disappear, as is often the case in the work of all three.

Is the 104-minute, intermissionless work of five dances �" three general ones and two solos �" hard to perform? "I had to find dancers who could do the work, because it needs lots of stamina and intelligence," the choreographer observes. And the difference between dancers in 1979 and 2011? "Back then, they had all kinds of experience like contact improv, but the training is different now. There's more of a uniform look because they've all had Cunningham and classical ballet training," which says a lot about our postmodern culture, where everything's available.

Choreographer Lucinda Childs. Photo: Cameron Wittig, courtesy Walker Art Center

That's odd because Dance, as heard on the two-CD set with six members of the Philip Glass Ensemble, including the composer and two sopranos, and the bits of it I've seen on YouTube, is classically "pure," with a childlike, Mozartean tone, and clear, strong colors. When I say that the music keeps turning back on itself and shadowing itself, Childs agrees. "The dance is a tension and a dialogue with it. For me, joy is in it, and that's of course inspired by the music."

Childs and Glass will do a post-performance Q&A on Friday, April 29, and Glass will be giving a solo piano recital at 3 p.m. the next day, which includes the Childs-choreographed Mad Rush and the rarely-performed Dreaming Awake, which draws on the discoveries Glass made in his Oscar-nominated score for Stephen Daldry's 2002 The Hours .

Dance, Novellus Theater at YBCA, 700 Howard St., SF. Info: (415) 392-2545,