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Lucinda Childs Dance Company

'Dance'

by David Mead

October 18, 2011 -- Barbican Theatre, London, UK

Made in 1979, “Dance” was the first of Lucinda Childs’ large-scale collaborations with noted composers and designers, in this case Philip Glass and visual artist Sol Le Witt. Revived in 2009, it remains incredibly beautiful and, given that it relies on little more than half a dozen basic phrases, for the most part quite spellbinding.

Those phrases are repeated, built upon and varied as the dancers weave patterns behind a gauze onto which is projected Sol Le Wit’s film of the original cast from 1979. The opening “Dance I” is lively while exuding a sense of innocence and purity. Pairs of dancers, all dressed in tight fitting white tops and flowing white trousers skit and gambol playfully across the stage from side to side, devouring the space. The same simple phrases, full of small, yet perfect tilts, hops, skips and jetés are repeated again and again. Almost imperceptibly, additions and variations appear; leaps get larger and small, quick steps change the dancers’ focus to the diagonal.

The solo in the central “Dance II” is slower, more purposeful and more about a walking pattern than moving at speed. One’s mind flitted back to some of the early work of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. The steps here are just as purposeful, but lighter, often seeming like a one-person waltz. This part was originally danced by Childs herself, and despite the best efforts of Caitlin Scranton, she still dominates it courtesy of the film.

In “Dance III”, movement and music become more structurally complex. Reflecting the score, Childs builds in more and more crossing and interchanging of groups. The basic steps first seen in the opening are still visible, and while the straight lines of earlier have long gone, the geometry of the choreography remains perfect.

“Dance” may be relentless, but the integration of music, live dance and film, each referring to the others, makes it special indeed. The juxtaposition of real and virtual, colour and black and white, past and present is quite fascinating. Le Witt’s film is edited cleverly. Sometimes the grainy, almost ghost-like images of dancers past appear huge and dominate the scene. The grid marked out on the filmed stage gives the footage depth, making appear almost as if it was shot in 3-D. Occasionally it seems as if the real dancers are performing on the filmed stage along with their giant counterparts. Sometimes they are almost perfectly matched in size with the live action. Sometimes the filmed group appear as if dancing on a balcony overlooking the stage. One should not expect any less from an artist well-known for his deceptively simple geometric structures and architecturally-scaled drawings.

As “Dance” progresses, differences between today’s dancers and those from the past become increasingly apparent. The film is timed perfectly with the on-stage action making comparisons easy. Maybe it was something to do with the number of frames per second on the film, but the on-screen dancers seemed quicker, even though they never overtook their real-life counterparts. Both groups maintain a playful lyricism, but of a different sort. Today’s cast wear jazz shoes that encourage the pointed foot, all very different to the sneakers of 1989. But it’s the difference in the way the two groups hold their bodies that is most striking. The original cast appear freer, their bodies less held, less erect, less formal. The arms of those on film appear more fluid and to carry more weight. Their jumps seem smaller and almost skim the ground rather than rising into the air. Somehow, it is all rather more understated.

“Dance” may be classical ballet stripped down to a few steps and, in Dance I at least, simple directions. But the way Childs does it shows great respect for the art form. A vision of a former age, yes, but one well worth seeing.

 

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