For Available Light: Some Notes on Choreography
Susan Sontag (originally published in 1983) July 6, 2018
For Available Light: Some Notes on Choreography
(This essay was first published the 1983 catalogue that accompanied the original production of Available Light at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.)
Lucinda Childs's work is the result of an exceptionally coherent sensibility, and itself possesses an extraordinary unity. It is work of visionary authority—an authority that resides, in part, in its lack of "rhetoric." It proceeds by the strict avoidance of cliché, and of anything that would make the work disjunctive, fragmented. By a refusal of humor, self-mockery, flirtation with the audience, cult of personality. By a distaste for the exhibitionistic: of movement calling attention to itself, of isolatable "effects." Its beauty is, first of all, an art of refusal.
As a choreographer, Childs has had a remarkably logical career. In the first phase, from 1963 to 1966, there were 13 performance pieces (mostly solos). The non-dance movements, the use of objects and, in some cases, witty monologues, gave these works a dadaist insouciance, though they were in fact rigorously structured and solemnly executed. Improvisation was never a technique, nothing was random—and all required feats (some of them stunts) of precise synchronization. These strategies, Childs's first attempt to develop highly formal concerns with space and time, soon lost their charms. Untitled Trio (1968)—three ten-minute dances, each for three dancers, without props, words, or music—signaled a dramatic change of tone and means from the "found" movements and ironic verbosity licensed by the Duchampian aesthetic, a change so radical that it may obscure the essentially exploratory nature of the first and second phases of Childs's work, and the underlying unity of their formal concerns.
This second phase, inaugurated with Untitled Trio, was cut short by illness, and begins properly (after a period of convalescence, further training, and teaching), five years later. Starting with a revised version of Untitled Trio, Childs created 16 pieces—solos and works for small ensembles—between 1973 and 1978. All between ten and 13 minutes, they explore highly disciplined, complex, gamelike relations in space, using phrases built out of simple movements such as walks, skips, jumps, falls, runs, turns. (Childs's first appearance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, for some years now her principal performance base in the United States, was in 1977, with a program of six "silent" pieces.)
The third phase of Childs's work, starting in 1979, can no longer be called exploratory: long works that are wrapped around music, much longer in scale, and more ambitious formally—in which, with the presence of music, the addition of sets and costumes (the first time the dancers were costumed was at the Brooklyn Academy in 1977), the dance vocabulary is being built back up to rejoin, on its own terms, the mainstream of dance vocabulary. Since 1981, Childs has also been choreographing for other companies. Childs started by defining herself as a "modern" choreographer; therefore, alienated from "tradition." (Two decades ago, it could still seem plausible to regard modern dance as the antithesis of classical dance.) When she did start choreographing dances, in 1968, it was with the predilection for keeping the movement vocabulary relatively simple, seeking complexity elsewhere—in the intricate design of spatial forms and of timing. But the music-based works choreographed since 1979 propose a much more complex movement vocabulary, and Childs has broken radically with the anti-ballet aesthetic of the other ex- or neo-Duchampian choreographers with whom she is often (mistakenly) grouped. Of all the adepts of the rigorously modern among contemporary choreographers, Childs has the subtlest—potentially the richest—relation to classical dance. If the use of portions of the ballet idiom is more easily recognizable in the work of Merce Cunningham and Twyla Tharp, it is because Childs does not feed balletic movements and positions into an eclectic mix, but wholly transforms and essentially reinterprets them.
Dance for Childs is the art of euphoria.
In this, as in other matters, Childs's approach is strongly anti-collage. Thus the choreography of Available Light was not conceived first and then illustrated by the music, the set, and the costumes, but solicited, presupposed, and was worked out in strict relation to them—to the two-level stage devised by Frank Gehry, the multi-layered music of John Adams, the three-color constructivist scheme (black, red, white) of Shamask's costumes.
Of the 16 "silent" pieces that Childs choreographed between 1973 and 1978—for the company she founded in 1973—none uses more than five dancers. In 1978, the company was enlarged to eight (four men and four women) plus Childs—the cast of the first two large-scale productions, Dance (1979) and Relative Calm (1981). Childs is in the process of expanding the company to 12 (Available Light, the third of her large-scale productions, uses 11 dancers); and she would like to work with 16 or, ideally, 20 dancers. Childs likes the dancers to have two kinds of technique. Many are Cunningham-trained, and all study ballet as well—like Childs. Her choreography requires dancers who are the equivalent of bilingual: who speak the language of modern dance (Childs considers Cunningham technique by far the most appropriate modern technique), and the classical language of ballet.
Childs is of course herself a member of the company, and dances in almost all the works she has made. She choreographs herself differently, whether as a member of the ensemble, or as the company's only soloist. Even in Available Light, in which Childs has no solo section as such where she appears alone on stage (unlike Dance and Relative Calm), she is the only dancer who comes and goes. All the other dancers remain on stage for the entire 50 minutes. (Except for the brief pause after 30 minutes, when the music downshifts and all ten go off and then return.)
The diagonal is a signature element in Childs's choreography—a principle of avidity, about space. The dancers frequently go into low plié arabesque, with the arm continuing the diagonal: the longest line that the body can make. And a favorite path for the dancers is diagonal: the longest distance one can traverse on stage without changing direction. Relative Calm contains the apotheosis of Childs's adventures with the diagonal: two of its four sections being choreographed entirely on the diagonal. In the 23-minute first section, the whole company dances back and forth on parallel paths from upstage right to downstage left; in the 17-minute third (solo) section, Childs moves back and forth in phrases of different lengths, punctuated by turns, on the opposite diagonal.
When dancers move to the diagonal, it often means an intensification, as in the finale of "Dance #1" of Dance, when suddenly four pairs of dancers dash again and again from upstage left to downstage right. Or as in Available Light: Childs's arrival upstage right and procession downstage left through a corridor formed by eight dancers, four on each side.
A recurrent structure in Childs's work splits the performance into two versions, the action into two levels. In a very early piece, Street Dance (1964), Childs's voice, taped, is in the loft with the audience; she is down on the street, seen performing the actions that the audience, standing at the window, hears described on the tape. Doubling, in the sense of synchronization, became the extended subject of the works created for small ensembles in the 1970s starting with Untitled Trio, in which dancers perform the same actions on different paths. Transverse Exchanges and Radial Courses (both of 1976) elaborate, delicately and strenuously, on the counterpoint of dancers going in and out of sync with each other through changes of gait, direction, and relation to the floor.
In the large works created since 1979—since Childs moved from the dance concerts to dance productions—the adding of décor is never merely decorative, but integral to this theme: Childs seeks décor that functions principally to create richer possibilities of doubling the action. So, the film that Sol LeWitt made as the "décor" for Dance is a film of portions of Dance, projected on a transparent scrim at the front of the stage—thereby creating a perfectly synchronized double set of dancers. For example, the audience sees the dancers in the film, never less than life-size, on top; the live dancers (behind the scrim) on the bottom. In Available Light, the set itself has become two-level: what LeWitt did in the film, Gehry does in the set—and more. One to three dancers are upstairs echoing, playing off, providing counterpoint to what the dancers are doing below. Childs's work is about love of dance. So much of contemporary dance shows contempt for dance.
Dance for Childs is the art of euphoria. While in the second phase of her work, dance is playful, lively, the new work of the last four years reaches for a poignant "elevation" of mood; a broader, more euphoric buoyancy; a romantic beauty, distilled through the kind of aesthetic purism inherent in Childs's sensibility. (Available Light is the second act of Giselle as revised and corrected by Mondrian.) Childs is in the course of founding, almost single-handedly, a new classicism in dance. (The "classical" tradition in dance is romantic.) She is developing into the great classical (or is it neoclassical?) choreographer in the modern (or is it post-modern?) dance tradition. Childs's work assumes that dancing is a noble art.
—©1983 Susan Sontag. Reprinted by kind permission of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles