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Lucinda Childs has been creating dances for almost sixty years. Her dances are, at once, lucid and mysterious – mathematically precise and unaccountable; conceptually pristine and hypnotic; spatially rigorous and transcendent. In creating works of such striking imagination, Childs has come to be regarded as one of the most original artists of our time. Suzanne Carbonneau spoke on behalf of ICONS with Childs about her career and her recent work.
ICONS: Tell us about your first encounters with dance. Did you always want to be a dancer?
Lucinda Childs: When I was very young, I attended the King-Coit School in New York City, which offered theater, art, and dance for children. The noted actress Mildred Dunnock was my idol there, who coached me with learning my lines from Shakespeare and encouraged me to become an actress. We also had ballet, and—can you imagine?—Tanaquil Le Clercq was my first teacher [Tanaquil’s mother, Edith Le Clercq, was friendly with Edith King and Dorothy Coit].
As a teenager, I went to Perry-Mansfield in Colorado and Helen Tamiris cast me in a production with Daniel Nagrin. It was very important to me that Tamiris treated me like someone who was good enough for that. I went to college at Sarah Lawrence, where Bessie Schonberg headed the program, and she invited Merce Cunningham as one of the guest teachers. That changed everything for me because he was such a contemporary spirit. And at his studio were Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and all these incredible people. Suddenly I realized that this was where I wanted to be and this was what I wanted to do. And when I graduated from college, Yvonne Rainer invited me to join Judson.
ICONS: You began your career in 1963 as the youngest member of the Judson Dance Theater. Has the experimentation at Judson stayed with you over the half-century since?
LC: I still go back to that discipline and that way of looking at things. John Cage encouraged artists not to depend on their own choices for ideas, concepts, and options. I applied those ideas at Judson, but also in the work I did after—not necessarily through Cage’s idea of chance, but in terms of exploring that model of immense discipline. The chance methodology is so disciplined and so organized, and you see all these options you would never knew could be possible: Where in time? Who? How? When? If? All these questions are being asked outside of your own preferences. Today, I really study my scores for possibilities for variations. And I don't necessarily want to do all of them, but I want to explore beyond just what initially comes to my mind.
ICONS: After Judson, you took some time off from dance for study and reflection. Can you tell us about your interest in the visual arts?
LC: I was always interested in Jackson Pollock. The first time I saw his Autumn Rhythm, when I was a teenager, I was very struck by it, and I think that is why I connected so much to Rauschenberg and Johns when I got to the Cunningham Studio. And then the whole minimalist movement was very interesting to me because I was working in a kind of minimalist style myself: I abandoned the objects and dialogues and monologues and gimmicks that were associated with the Judson movement to work in an isolated way with simple movement patterns. And that connected very much with visual artists like Sol LeWitt and Frank Stella and Robert Morris.
ICONS: Were you also following what is happening in ballet in New York?
LC: When I began to work with the Cunningham technique, I became more interested in ballet in general and was very keen on watching Balanchine in particular. I was interested in the abstract nature of Balanchine’s choreography, its incredible skill, its brilliance. Just everything about it. I also became fascinated by ballet history. Les Sylphides is one of my favorite ballets. I admired Fokine’s interest in breaking away from using the technique as a kind of circus to display pirouettes and fouettés and leaps. I became fascinated by the influence on Fokine of Isadora Duncan’s visit to Russia, and how she had to go that far from home for the recognition that there was something of value in what she was doing.
ICONS: You are now known for the deep connection between your choreography and the accompanying music, but early in your career, you created a series of groundbreaking works in silence. Why did you begin working in this way?
LC: At the Cunningham studio, I saw that rehearsals were conducted without accompaniment. Instead, the dancers counted in two-second intervals. That was how they kept the whole thing together, which was very, very beautiful and very, very disciplined. And I thought that was a splendid way to work. Even though the dancers had musical accompaniment in performances, I realized that was not what they were listening to. They were listening to each other. I found that coexistence beautiful and interesting, so I decided to explore that further.
ICONS: You worked in silence up through the mid-1970s. How did the changeover from silence to music come about?
LC: Robert Wilson invited me to perform in Einstein on the Beach in 1976 and to create an extended solo to the music of Philip Glass. I knew Phil’s music and I admired it enormously, and there are a lot of parallels between our way of structuring material. But I had never imagined dancing to his music or with it, and it was a huge step for me to work that out. It developed into a playful kind of thing. The solo was kind of a question-and-answer with the music. Sometimes I'm on it, sometimes I'm off it deliberately, but I accept it and I say, "Okay, that's my sounding board and I'll work with it and against it." After Einstein, Phil suggested that we continue working together. And we both had the idea that, even though it's a contemporary production, it could exist in a traditional setting. Not outdoors, not on a rooftop, not in a church, or a gymnasium. We were now making the work for a large proscenium space, and I thought that we should also have a décor and we invited Sol Lewitt to make the décor for Dance.
ICONS: Once you began making dances on an opera house-scale, you began working largely outside of the United States. Were there just more resources available abroad for that kind of work?
LC: Yes. Einstein and Dance toured worldwide, but in the US, they never went very far west of the Hudson. Later, my US seasons mostly took place in New York, either at BAM or the Joyce. And that's where I have continued to present my work. But I have been working steadily throughout my life as a choreographer both with my own company and on commissions. The Dutch company Introdans, which has a large repertory of my work, is bringing a program of my choreography to the Joyce in June 2020 in celebration of my 80th birthday. This season will consist of choreography that was all made in Europe and has never been seen before in the United States.
ICONS: Let’s talk about your choreographic process. How does work on a dance begin for you?
LC: The initial process is pretty intuitive: Usually, I listen to music and improvise and find movement material that I think will work. I then try to organize this material into a structure that becomes a choreographic score. It's very important for me to have the musical score to work off of, and I study it to see how it can be counted. The rest of the process is really involved with getting it off my body and onto the dancers who will perform it. Of course, when I see it on the dancers, there are adjustments that must be made and decisions about how the material is arranged among the dancers.
ICONS: Is your choreographic structure made in concordance with the musical structure?
LC: Absolutely. It's a sounding board. It's what I turn to because I don't want to just start and see what happens or create the material until the music stops. I have to think in terms of the entire span of the music, of connecting with the music throughout. I want to understand the whole flow of the music at the beginning, the middle, and the end. So, I often break down the music into sections and parts; I find certain places where things can come back because the music repeats, or I ignore that and I'll go on to something new. It's all a very playful kind of dialogue with the music and a kind of attention to the music that creates something that makes it come alive for me. I very much enjoy working in that way.
ICONS: Since 1981, you have choreographed more than thirty works for major ballet companies, including the Paris Opera Ballet, and you have directed and choreographed many operas. As you are creating the vocabulary for these commissions, do you tailor them for the companies you are working with?
LC: I'm really just working on my own ideas that come from listening to music. The material I develop is all from the music itself. And then of course, once it gets put on the dancers, then we make adjustments—it’s modified or extended. But it just comes from an intuitive process. In fact, when I go into the studio, I'm not really sure what's going to happen. When I'm alone, it's just completely open: I just keep working until I find some material that I can use.
ICONS: So, it doesn't have as much to do with the individuals with whom you’re working as it does a larger idea of structure and vocabulary?
LC: Initially, yes. And then later, of course, the dancers matter, and then it's made for the dancers and laid on the dancers. But initially developing the material is just a process that I do by myself.
ICONS: The dancers seemed to matter very much in Histoire, a commission for the Martha Graham Company that you initially made in 1999 as a duet and expanded last year for eight dancers. The dance seems to have a unique tonal dimension in your repertory.
LC: Originally, in the duet, I was working with Terese Capucilli, so I gravitated to a direction that worked for her. There are sections of that piece that are completely abstract with the “Lucinda Childs movement,” but there are parts that are not so abstract, where there is partnering. And it felt that working with the Graham dancers presented a good opportunity to explore partnering further. People always say, "Oh, Lucinda's dancers, they never touch each other." So, this was very different. And I enjoyed working on that, exploring, pushing myself into a new direction, because it was a fresh challenge for me to work in this way, with these dancers. I am always looking for a challenge wherever I work—in dance, opera, or theater.
ICONS: You have a new evening-length work, The Day, which received its premiere at Jacob’s Pillow this summer and is now touring. It’s another unusual project, a collaboration with cellist Maya Beiser and legendary dancer Wendy Whelan, who is also the Associate Artistic Director of the New York City Ballet. Whelan has said that she had always had you in mind as a choreographer with whom she wanted to work and felt that in The Day she had found a dream project to do that. Beiser has said that she was excited at the idea of bringing you on the project because it became a collaboration that brought together the knowledge and experience of three mature women. How did you approach this project?
LC: The work is structured around the music, which was composed by David Lang for Maya Beiser. The musical score brings together two compositions, “The Day” and “The World to Come.” From the outset, it was intended that both Wendy and Maya would be on stage together, and I loved that idea. All three of us worked together throughout the rehearsals. This was wonderful because it gave me the chance to think of the interesting path of exchange between Maya and Wendy across the two sides and levels of the space. And all of these decisions were made together very early on.
ICONS: There's text in the first half of the music, and there are deep emotional undercurrents throughout with references to 9/11 and life and death and the afterlife. You are known for abstraction. How did you handle David Lang’s score?
LC: The second half, “The World to Come,” is abstract in terms of its design and is structured in a very transparent way that appeals to me very much. Whereas the first part, because of the nature of the text, brought me back actually to the world of Judson, and to the world of props and materials and objects. (And that's not the first time that's happened. I've done that when working in opera as well.) I decided to create a series of props for Wendy to work with, and I thought that this would be an interesting way to connect Wendy with Maya. For example, there's a whole section where Wendy drags long poles in a certain way that connects to the movement of Maya with her bow. And the strings Wendy manipulates connect to the strings of the cello. I also make a connection between the props, movement, and text.
ICONS: Can you describe your working process with Whelan?
LC: I was able to structure this work through and with Wendy. The second part is choreographed in a way that is connected to the music. But the first part has structured improvisations for Wendy; there is a range of possibilities for her to choose within the different sections. Even though it’s the same material, she can organize it a little bit differently each time. She doesn't have to always be in the exact same space on the stage, or in the exact same movement arrangement. And I like that because she feels free within the sections to arrange herself, though she has to begin and end at very specific times.
ICONS: What did Whelan, in particular, bring to the project?
LC: She brings, of course, her incredible background and expertise, and all these years of working. But she has a projection that's so powerful that I find that it lends itself to this kind of material that she hasn't necessarily done before. The entire first part is theatrical. And that was a deliberate consideration because she has to dance for an hour without a break. The more demanding dance section is the second part.
I wanted this work to have a theatrical quality to it that would enable Wendy to project what she does in a very powerful way. In other words, if she had to be replaced, I think we'd really have a hard time. I wouldn't know how to do that because it's really made for her. I gave her a structure, and then she built it out in different ways. As we were working out all of the ideas, I said to her, "We can try this, or we can try that." And she would go for it. She's very ambitious and brave and courageous, and she just goes right into things and finds things within what I give her.
More About Lucinda Childs:
Lucinda Childs launched her career at the Judson Dance Theatre in the 1960s. Since forming her own dance company 10 years later, she has created an extensive body of work marked by distinctive collaborations with many luminary contemporary artists. Some of her most prominent endeavors include Einstein on the Beach with Philip Glass and Robert Wilson; Dance with Sol LeWitt; and Available Light -- with music by John Adams and scenery by Frank Gehry -- which had a two-night revival this summer at Lincoln Center.
She has also directed and choreographed a number of contemporary and eighteenth-century operas, including Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice for the Los Angeles Opera, Mozart’s Zaide for La Monnaie in Brussels, Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol and Oedipe, Vivaldi’s Farnace, and Handel’s Alessandro.
Childs’s newest project, The Day, is a solo evening for dancer Wendy Whelan in collaboration with cellist Maya Beiser to music ("The Day" and "World to Come") by David Lang. The Day, which had its world premiere in August 2019, at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, remembers and mourns lives lost and the horrific devastation following the September 11, 2001 collapse of the Twin Towers. Showing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC on December 6-7, 2019. Tickets at https://www.kennedy-center.org/calendar/event/DUDSE
Lucinda Childs Website: http://www.lucindachilds.com/
Lucinda Childs portrait, Photography by Rita Antonioli ©
Photo 1: Einstein on the Beach, Photography by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times ©
Photo 2: Available Light, Craig Mathew, 2015, Los Angeles ©
Photo 3: Available Light, Photo by J.J Tiziou, 2015, Philadelphia ©
Photo 4-7: THE DAY, Courtesy of the Jacobs Pillow Dance Festival ©
Interviewer: Suzanne Carbonneau
Content Editor-in-Chief: Camilla Acquista
Dance ICONS, Inc. December 2019 © All rights reserved.