O>ne of the founders of minimalism, choreographer Lucinda Childs is most popularly known for having choreographed—and played the title role in—the breakout postmodern opera Einstein on the Beach with avant-garde director Robert Wilson and composer Philip Glass. In 1979, she collaborated with Glass on Dance, a five-part manifesto of minimalism in movement and music. Both works have been revived in recent years. American audiences are still catching up with the choreographer, who has mostly worked with European companies since the 1990s.
On Tuesday, Childs receives the Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement, which she'll accept along with a $50,000 check before advanced ADF students reconstruct two of her works during the festival's Footprints concert. Before accepting the honor, the INDY caught up with her about her life's work, and how she continues to challenge audiences with her choreography.
INDY: For most of our readers, minimalism has always been a part of their cultural landscape. It's had a fundamental influence on visual art, architecture, music, dance, and design for the last half-century. But when you were starting out as an ADF student in 1961 and with the seminal Judson Dance Theatre in 1963, it basically didn't exist. What did it take to "go first," to set out so radically from the work that had been done in dance up to that point?
LUCINDA CHILDS: It was rather an amazing time. At the [Merce] Cunningham studio you'd run into people like John Cage, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg; it was the first time I was aware of painters like Jackson Pollock. It was a new and exciting movement, and I was very impressed and thrilled by their work.
But the contemporary art world at the time was wholly unlike the modern dance scene. Up to then, modern dance was dominated by the notion of the narrative, Martha Graham in particular.
But Cunningham thought the dance was important, in and of itself. To him, it didn't need a narrative base. He was interested in abstract work and abstract expression, and his aesthetic and technical work fit in with what was going on in the visual art world and music.
I found it refreshing. It gave us the freedom to explore, the freedom not to worry about expressing any kind of emotion, just worry about the dance. At the Judson Church theater, we were encouraged to apply Cage's theories to our compositions: wherever the dancers face is front, for example, a very disorienting concept at the time. Instead of dancing to the music, the dancers coexisted with the music. Cunningham's dancers sometimes wouldn't hear Cage's scores until the performance.
It was a very unusual period, and Judson Church was something of a laboratory. I was very lucky to be there.
There's always a lightness and a buoyancy to your movement, but your work has also struck me as disciplined and overtly investigative in approaching themes and variations. What questions interested you most in your early work, and what interests you now?
The most obvious ones were included in our work: exploring material outside the traditional vocabulary of dance, pedestrian movement, found movement, and the manipulation of objects. [Childs used household kitchen and bathroom appliances in early pieces like Screen and Carnation.]
Philip Glass and I think very similarly in terms of theme and variation. That's why we've continued to work together. In a very calculated way, we take on simple structures and find they become more and more complex as we unfold them. I've moved into other territories with other composers, but I've done it in a way to bring my aesthetic into styles that are not contemporary.
With Glass and other composers, you set about examining an extended series of minute mathematical changes in themes in your works. If that was a challenge to 1970s audiences, given our supposedly dwindling attention spans in the U.S., is it more of one today?
My work is certainly demanding in a sense. It requires attentiveness to the material itself and what's happening to it. If you don't have that, you're just going to think it's the same thing happening over and over, and it isn't. My audiences never see the material presented in the same way; it's always repeated differently. If you don't get caught up in that, you can't enter into the dialogue.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Dance Deconstructed"