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Contemporary dance troupes and ballet companies have been exploring minimalist music with increasing interest and ardour over the last few decades. Whether the score is specially commissioned for this purpose or a pre-existing work, minimalism is arguably the musical genre most suited for interpretation through dance; often the two are so closely linked that the choreography could be seen as a direct visual translation of an aural artform, or the vice versa.
But this striking synergy between two worlds didn’t just emerge fully formed; New York choreographer Lucinda Childs and her dancers paved the way in a 1979 collaboration with composer Philip Glass and video artist Sol LeWitt. That production, a modern classic, enabled Childs to create a language and mode of expression in dance that could interact with some of the most gripping music of our time in a meaningful way.
That the work was simply named Dance says it all: rather than the usual “story” ballet with characters and plot, this was movement as narrative in its own right; the interplay between music and the body as dialogue.
Seen in its revival production by the Lucinda Childs Dance Company for the Perth Festival, and part of Philip Glass's 75th birthday celebrations this year, is it still as gripping as it was more than three decades ago?
The music starts abruptly and we are enveloped in Glass’s lush, whirling chords. Ten dancers, clad all in white, mirror the unrelenting rhythms by continually crossing to the other side of the stage and then back in various formations. If it went on like this for an hour I would be inclined to agree with minimalism’s detractors and admit arpeggios ad infinitum can get boring.
Enter Sol LeWitt, with his vibrant black-and-white footage of the original 1979 dancers executing the exact same steps in identical dress. Projected on a see-through screen and writ large onstage, these ghostly, translucent figures join their present-day counterparts in unusual pas de deux. Filmed from different angles, magnified and split-screened, they generate endless permutations of geometrical symmetries in a monochrome kaleidoscope effect as they interact with the live performers. LeWitt's mechanism of generating interest amid the waves of repetition is an ingenius one.
It’s like a hall of mirrors, only the two groups elucidate one another rather than obfuscate as bodies are essentially moved around the audience to display multiple viewpoints. I would have written that the current group’s gestures shadow those of the originals, but that indicates a delay, when in fact there isn’t so much as a second’s deviation as they match the match the rapidly oscillating music with tightly constructed choreography. Though rigidly rhythmic, there is a lightness and flow to the overall structure (emphasised by the camerawork) that gives each gesture an incredible freedom. The effect is one of mesmerising beauty, but if it all gets a bit overwhelmingly repetitive you can take a moment to close your eyes and let the music wash over you, or tune out momentarily and squint at the stage as if it were a Magic Eye puzzle.
And so it continues in three sections totalling 60 minutes as Glass’s intense, synthesizer-laden music blazes on and slowly transitions from one rhythmic cycle to the next. The middle piece was originally a solo for Childs, who twirls eternally forward and back in LeWitt’s film like a catwalk model. The film focuses on her face, its immobile calm belying deepest concentration. Though Caitlin Scranton did a fine job, I wondered if it might have been a more potent experience in the 1970s when Childs originally performed alongside herself in the same part. She did, at least, take an onstage bow after the Perth Festival's final showing of Dance, looking as svelte and statuesque as ever. One imagines she would have been proud to see the 1979 incarnates of the company she founded and made her namesake dancing with its current line-up.