Audiences hissed and booed almost 40 years ago when they first saw the groundbreaking, multi-media performance “Dance” by post-modern choreographer Lucinda Childs, composer Philip Glass and artist Sol LeWitt. Time has brought changes – not to the piece but to its reception.
“I think people were initially shocked by the work,” Childs, 76, said in a recent phone interview in advance of a performance of the piece Tuesday at Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill. “People worship Glass now.”
The one-hour performance, part of a series of shows being presented by Carolina Performing Arts in celebration of Glass’s 80th year, features dancers from the Lucinda Childs Dance Company, in long-sleeved white tops and white pants, moving across stage as they appear and disappear in various repetitive, patterned sequences marked by changes in direction. Defining the stage floor is a filmed grid, created by LeWitt, who died in 2007 at 78. Projected onto a transparent scrim in front of the dancers is LeWitt’s filmed version of the original dancers. The entire piece is danced to a score by Glass.
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“It has been an amazing experience to put this all back together,” Childs said. “I didn’t expect that (even) seven years later it would still be in our repertory.”
When Childs, Glass and LeWitt began to collaborate in 1979, they asked themselves: “What are we going to do?” Childs had been part of Judson Dance Theater, a group of dancers in the 1960s experimenting with ordinary movement, found objects and non-traditional performance spaces. Childs performed in the street, along roof tops, in churches and gymnasiums – but not on the proscenium stage.
Given the stage’s architectural demands, she said, “That was an enormous consideration for me.”
LeWitt provided the answer. “He came up with the idea that the décor would be the dancers. The proscenium stage just becomes a frame.”
As for the film, Child’s said: “There’s a split-second synchronicity with the dancers on the stage.”
That synchronicity adds a ghost-like quality, a doubling: images over images, hypnotic movement over hypnotic movement – layers of sound and sight and pattern. While the choreography for “Dance” has stayed the same, as Childs pointed out, of course, “All of the dancers in the film have been replaced including me. I’m fascinated by the differences from the original dancers. I didn’t want the dancers to look at the film. I just wanted to teach them the choreography. I wanted them to be true to their own style and to the choreography.”
Current dancers’ arm movements, she said, appear more controlled than those of the original dancers. Plus, LeWitt’s 35mm film was facing deterioration and had to be transferred to high-definition digital video. Even 10 years ago that wouldn’t have been possible, Childs said. The Philip Glass Ensemble, meanwhile, re-recorded the score. “The sound is even better.”
Her work has been described in positive and negative terms, from cool to glacial, from elegant to clinical, from polished to empty. “I am very much in the post-modern tradition, the minimalist tradition,” she said, and harkened back to works by choreographer Merce Cunningham, composer John Cage and artist Robert Rauschenberg.
One critic in Portland, Oregon, she said, speaking of “Dance’s” revival, couldn’t believe the choreography hadn’t changed. This critic disliked the original work but found the revival fine, she said.
As for the audiences’ response to the piece? Childs said she can’t be responsible: “We just get to present.”
What: Lucinda Childs Dance Company
When: 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 7
Where: Memorial Hall, 114 E. Cameron St., University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Tickets: Start at $10.
Info: 919-843-3333; carolinaperformingarts.org