Lucinda Childs
Lucinda Childs' “Dance.” Photograph by Sally Cohn

Available Light

Legendary choreographer Lucinda Childs

With Los Angeles currently cited as the world’s hottest art market, many seem to forget that the city actually has a storied history, both in the visual arts as well as in presenting cutting edge performances. The year was 1983 and “Available Light,” a collaboration between Bay Area composer John Adams, Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry, and then New York-based choreographer Lucinda Childs, was one of the first projects to inaugurate what was known as the Temporary Contemporary.

A former police car warehouse that had been renovated by Gehry in Little Tokyo, the interim exhibition space of some 55,000 square feet is now the Geffen Contemporary, an adjunct site to the Arata Isozaki-designed Museum of Contemporary Art (M.O.C.A.), the City of Angels’ premiere showcase for post-war art, with a third location at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood.

That performance, curated by Julie Lazar, had been commissioned by M.O.C.A. and ran for several nights in the fall of 1983. It featured Gehry’s spectacular two-level set based on Constructivist principles, Adams’ original, taped score, Light Over Water, and 11 dancers, including Childs. When the work was mounted at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for its “New Wave” series in October of that year, the New York Times’ Anna Kisselgoff described the collaboration as, “a work of blazing formal beauty. Miss Childs has made a breakthrough in her career here.”

Now, nearly 32 years after “Light” premiered, it returns, this time to Walt Disney Concert Hall for two performances June 5 & 6, as part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Next On Grand: Contemporary Americans, a festival of music and dance.

“It’s the perfect time to present this piece,” said Childs by phone from New York. When I wrote to Frank about it, he was very, very generous in terms of being supportive of the idea, being involved in the idea and involving his staff. It’s wonderful for the three of us to get together again.”

This iteration of “Light” was commissioned by a number of institutions in the States and in Europe, and was developed at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCa), over a three-week residency that culminated in three performances last March at the museum’s Hunter Center.

Explained Childs, 74, who, when she’s not on the road choreographing new works, overseeing revivals or directing operas, lives in Martha’s Vineyard: “It was a wonderful residency. We had a chance for the company to adapt to the whole environment of the split-level set. It was an ideal situation, since we would rehearse during certain hours while [designers and crew] were working the lighting and the sound, so we could come to L.A. and actually perform it.

“The dimensions of the stage space,” added Childs, “will correspond to the ones at MASS MoCa, because we designed it so it would fit everywhere.”

Lucinda Childs. Photograph by Lucie Jansch

Indeed, Gehry’s two-story set, which is more streamlined than the original, with metal instead of wood, is but one of the unique aspects of “Light.” It provides the same functions as the original, but can also be used in smaller venues and for proscenium stages. (After its L.A. performances, the work tours to places that include Pennsylvania, Germany, Austria and France.)

Beverly Emmons, who was responsible for the original lighting design is again on board, while Ronaldus Shamask’s 1983 costumes have been replaced by those of Kasia Walicka-Maimone, a Hollywood costumer whose credits include 2011’s Moneyball and 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom.

According to Childs, Shamask’s neo-Bauhaus look felt dated. “I didn’t think that they were right for this group of dancers. I wanted their bodies to be more revealed; I wanted something new.”

As for the dancers, Childs formed a company some seven years ago when another of her seminal pieces, “Dance,” from 1979, was remounted in 2009, making a stop at U.C.L.A.’s Royce Hall in 2011.

In fact, it was Lazar, said Childs, who had seen “Dance” back in the day, and who then invited her to create the work that would become “Available Light.”

Recalled Childs: “Julie talked to me about the possibility of working with other artists. She mentioned John and Frank from the West Coast and I had to laugh. I didn’t care which coast they were from, I was happy to work with them, as they were quite well-known.”

The process of creating movement, said Childs, who was a charter member of the boundary-pushing, experimental Judson Dance Theater of the 1960s (other notable choreographers having sprung from that collective include Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer), has essentially remained the same over the years. Childs’ movement begins with improvisation, often performed alone, before she brings it to the dancers.

“I listen to the music in a dreamy, very intuitive way,” explained Childs, who said she notates her own dances much like storyboards, “because this helps me understand how things got structured and why.”  (The notebooks will be on exhibit next year in a Paris gallery.)

As this was Childs first time working with Adams’ music, she said it was, “challenging and more subtle, which partly has to do with the question of pure passages that don’t have a pulse you can follow easily.”

It would not, however, be her last time working with Adams: Childs subsequently choreographed and directed his opera, “Doctor Atomic,” in various productions since its premiere in 2005, most recently last year in France.

The choreography for “Light” was also dictated, in part, by Gehry’s set, with the steps not changing in the remounting, although there has been a bit of tweaking to bring out the dancers’ individual strengths and personalities.

“That’s something we worked on together,” Childs said. “My work is involved in dancers working together in a very precise way, and they’ve adapted to that very well.”

Childs had initially formed a company in 1973 and has created some 50 works for her troupe. She’s also choreographed for ballet and opera companies around the world, including working with Los Angeles Opera. In 2001 she choreographed a Maximilian Schell-directed “Lohengrin” for the organization, and two years later, she both choreographed and directed Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice.” It was also in 2001 that Childs received the Bessie Award for Sustained Achievement.

But a lot can change over the decades, including dancers.

“Today’s dancers are more versatile and come from very sophisticated, technical training. It’s not like the old days,” recalled Childs, “when everybody had companies. I didn’t want the dancers of today to try to imitate the idiosyncratic style of the 70s.

“I love working with the dancers now,” she added. “Yes, they have to pay attention and are counting constantly, even when they’re offstage and dealing with their entrances. But they learned that and they got to be very good at that.”

One choreographer/performer who was in the audience in 1983 when “Available Light” premiered in L.A., was Rudy Perez. The New York-born postmodernist, after studying with Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham and who was also a fixture at Judson with his own troupe, moved to Los Angeles in the late 1970s. There the Rudy Perez Performance Ensemble continued to thrive, as well as earn much critical acclaim over the years.

Perez, who turns 86 in November and will receive his third Lifetime Achievement award that same month, recalled the excitement surrounding the 1983 performance. “The Temporary has been one of my favorite spaces in L.A.,” said Perez, “and it was quite an occasion. It doesn’t get much better than Adams, Childs and Gehry,” he enthused. “I also think it’s great for this generation—the Millennials—to be challenged by the work, as it was even at that time.”

Lucinda Childs. Photograph by Nathaniel Tileston

Childs, who has been called the “High Priestess of Minimalism” because of her use of pedestrian movements—walking, skipping running, hopping—is decidedly in the zeitgeist these days. When Bard College asked the choreographer to revive “Dance” for its summer festival six years ago, little did Childs know that it would still be drawing crowds in 2015 and beyond.

With a commissioned score by Glass and décor by the late visual artist Sol LeWitt, the original hour-long piece played to unappreciative, often confused audiences in 1979. These days, the work, which will be performed in Geneva, Switzerland next February, is greeted with near reverence, the Washington Post’s Sarah Kaufman having described “Dance” as a “bare, brainy work.”

Not long after the revival of “Dance,” the Robert Wilson/Glass/Childs’ operatic tour de force, “Einstein on the Beach,” made a huge splash when it returned to stages in 2012. With revivals in 1984 and 1992, the epic landed at L.A.’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in October, 2013, nearly 37 years after the four-and-a-half hour plus spectacle was originally mounted.

It was also the first time that the work had been presented as part of a U.S. opera company’s season (L.A. Opera), with the City of Angels’ performances the last stop on the production’s North American tour.

And talk about legs, “Einstein,” the opera that is not really an opera—nor is it really about the physicist Albert Einstein—goes to South Korea in October. Curiously, Childs, who danced in the original as well as performed in and choreographed the first revival, which included her re-making two extended ballet sequences, “The Field Dances,” said that she and Glass, because they were both in the work that altered the course of operatic history, had actually never seen it.

Childs described watching “Einstein,” decidedly one of the most influential pieces of theater in the past five decades, as “quite interesting,“ adding, “because I was doing some of the dance solos and the performance parts with text, I was onstage a lot. There were a lot of things I didn’t realize, especially about the décor. There is an amazing quality to it and to watch Bob work on relighting it, I thought was fantastic. It’s the best ever.”

Lucinda Childs Dance Company performing “Dance” in 1979. Photograph by Nathaniel Tileston

Childs’ current crop of dancers, seven women and four men, ranging in age from late 20s to early 30s, have their work cut out for them. “A group that works with me understands my process. It also makes it more gratifying to me that I’ve worked with them before. This has been very helpful.”

And how does one become a Lucinda Childs dancer?

“We have open auditions,” replied the choreographer, “and anybody who’s interested is invited to come. In the end I look for people who are musical and who are strong, athletically strong, because of the stamina involved, and people who learn quickly. It’s asking a lot, but we’ve found good people.”

As is the case with many other troupes trying to sustain a company in today’s financially precarious times, Childs’ dancers take outside engagements when not performing with her. “At best,” Childs said, “they work 20 weeks a year with me and have other work with other choreographers, which I encourage. Otherwise, they’re just waiting around, as I have a freelance schedule that’s also separate from the company.”

That schedule would include working with Wilson and Estonian composer Arvo Pärt on “Adam’s Passion.” The sound and light spectacle was conceived in honor of Pärt’s 80th birthday, and premiered last month in a former ship-building factory on the Baltic Sea coast in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital. Childs is also looking forward to a future collaboration with Glass and artist James Turrell, the latter, aptly, known for his mesmerizing use of light.

With the passage of time, perceptions and concepts of dance have evolved, as have audiences, who, for the most part, Childs said, are enthusiastic. “It’s only in the last five or six years that we’ve been in the U.S., because most of the work I’ve done has been in Europe. With “Einstein,” there were generations who’d seen it before as well as people who hadn’t.

“Audiences are mixed, but very positive,” she added. “I think that a lot of them come with an understanding of what they’re going to see, which is completely abstract. I also think that audiences, in general, are more open-minded about accepting this kind of work. We had it in the visual arts starting way back in the 50s. The whole idea of the Minimalist movement is certainly nothing new.”

But the emotions that “Available Light” are sure to evoke promise to feel as fresh and new today as they did in 1983.

  1. I think you may be in awe of the big names involved in this production.
    It was a performance that failed to launch at best.
    There was no movement, just monotony. It was 55 minutes too long. I say this regretfully.

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