It's not often that polite Minnesotans get worked up enough to loudly walk out of a performance. But 30 years ago, when the Walker Art Center brought postmodern choreographer Lucinda Childs to the Northrop stage, it quickly became apparent that minimalist dance and music could do the trick. Childs' simply titled "Dance," a collaborative effort with composer Philip Glass and visual artist Sol LeWitt, proved too much for audiences used to more traditional fare.
"They decided it wasn't dance," Childs recalled in a recent phone interview. Audiences elsewhere agreed. During a performance of "Dance" at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris someone stood up to proclaim as much, said Glass, also on the call.
Dancer/writer Judith Brin Ingber was at the Minneapolis show. Remembering it via e-mail, she said she was excited to see "the avant-garde writ big at Northrop" but acknowledged it was a stretch for those unaccustomed to abstract work since "in Minneapolis there was not the dance scene at all that there is today." Still, she said, "Walking out is a time-honored form of protest."
Although Childs and Glass were aware of the walkouts, they pressed on. "You just keep performing," she said. "We were on a mission," he added. "The rigors of the piece are demanding enough -- we believed in the integrity of the work, so we weren't particularly bothered at all."
Fast-forward 30 years, and "Dance" is back with "a new group of dancers who were not even born when it was made," said Childs. The response is now more positive. "Audiences seem to know what it is, no one has to explain it, which is very gratifying," said Glass. "I guess we were a little ahead of our time. We expected a lot from the spectator. The language is radical from a conservative point of view. Eventually, it isn't so radical for people."
An original member of the Judson Dance Theater in 1960s New York, Childs, along with other choreographers like Trisha Brown and David Gordon, helped usher in a new era of experimentation. Her work builds upon accumulations of movement phrases that seem similar but subtly reveal countless variations.
In "Dance" this technique plays out through shifting spatial configurations, progressions in speed, a mathematical intensity fueled by pure movement and a streamlined relationship with the music, which follows the looping and repetition for which Glass is known.
"Dance" marked a significant departure for Childs. She hadn't put music in her works before, although she had worked with Glass and Robert Wilson on the landmark opera "Einstein on the Beach" in the mid-1970s. "When Philip first came to see me he was quite shocked I didn't use music. The dancers had their own rhythmic accompaniment," she said. Still, said Glass, "Lucinda had the ability to understand the structure of the music very quickly."
Adding LeWitt to the mix was also new. The artist, who died in 2007, was concerned the visual aspect might seem arbitrary. "I remember at our first meeting he said he didn't understand the purpose and I agreed with him absolutely, but then we decided the décor was the dancers," said Childs.
LeWitt opted to make a black-and-white film, even though he didn't work in that medium. "It was an act of confidence and courage," said Glass. "He could conceptualize anything. We trusted him completely." The film now serves as a record of those who first performed "Dance" and also generates shifts in time and perspective as the dancers onstage seem to interrelate with the dancers onscreen.
Will "Dance" appeal to 21st-century Minnesotans? "It's a completely open work," said Childs. "There's no narrative. I hope people will react differently. The drama is in the tension between the music and dance." It remains to be seen if the tension remains between artist and audience member, as well.
Caroline Palmer writes regularly about dance.