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Ghosts in the Machines 

What is dance?” is a question posited by postmodern choreography, and postmodern choreographers generally seek to answer it through means as far away from conventional notions of dance as possible. Classical codifications are often eschewed, along with formal training and any vestiges of performativity—including music, costumes, makeup, sets, lighting, and stages. Process is prized over product. Practitioners of the Judson Dance Theater, who formed the postmodern dance movement in Greenwich Village in the early 1960’s, frequently sought out pedestrians and tasked them with mundane activities like squeezing oranges or reciting addresses. Choreographer Lucinda Childs emerged from this scene. In a 1964 solo she made for herself, she sat on a stool with a colander on her head and stuffed her mouth with hair rollers and kitchen sponges.  


Lucinda Childs: “Dance”


New York City Center, New York, NY, October 19, 2023


Faye Arthurs

Lucinda Childs's “Dance.” Photograph by Julieta Cervantes

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Roughly a decade later, she was still asking the same question, but in the opposite way. In her seminal 1979 work, archly named “Dance,” she completely refashioned the inquiry by harnessing the talents of trained dancers, the music of Philip Glass, the visual artistry of Sol LeWitt, the costumes of A. Christina Giannini, and the lighting of Beverly Emmons. Last week, the Lyon Opera Ballet brought a revival of this hourlong ballet to City Center as part of the well-curated Dance Reflections Festival by Van Cleef & Arpels. Unlike most postmodern pieces, “Dance” is a harmonious, multi-disciplinary collaboration built upon formal techniques and theatrical traditions. Childs’s very title declares: “Here it is, this is dance!” The debate would appear to be settled before the curtain rises. Don’t let her fool you. 

Moments into Dance I, the first section of “Dance,” I could’ve added my name to the “Covers” column in the program. The choreography consisted of one brief allegro passage made up of tombés pas de bourrée, sautés, and a fleet, petite, à la seconde jump. Pairs of dancers in long-sleeved white leotards and white pants materialized from the wings to perform this phrase across the stage one way or the other, relentlessly. It was the choreographic equivalent of lap swimming, or Jack Nicholson writing: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” for pages on end. Every five minutes or so, a slight variation on the original sequence was incorporated: two bounces in fourth position, a croisé jeté, and simplified crossings of the little split jumps alone. But aside from these few minor accruals, the only variety was supplied by subtle shifts in timing and by LeWitt’s décor, which cast a black and white film of the dancers doing the same choreography they were doing onstage onto a scrim in front of it, exactly as they were doing it.  

Lucinda Childs's “Dance.” Photograph by Julieta Cervantes

This film was shot from multiple aspects, and it cycled through them seemingly at random. However, the ghostly, translucent dancers in the projections mostly hovered over their fleshy counterparts, evoking their souls. Every now and then the camera cropped in tightly on one person to display one giant apparition looming over the comparatively antlike humans on the stage. Sometimes the footage was lifted, cutting the scrim in half horizontally and elevating the spectral cast to a second floor, like they were atop a double decker bus. Often, the film included a gridded dance floor in its framing that was absent on the physical stage. The film was frequently angled, as if the shadow dancers were dancing on a raked disco floor. A couple of times, the gridded floor moved back and forth like a conveyer belt and the spectral dancers appeared to travel like the Flash, though they kept the same time as their live doppelgangers. These were my favorite moments: one more level of motion did the most to cut the tedium of the work. The lights briefly flashed red, yellow, then blue at one point in the third section too—which provided a momentary jolt. Spotting the few inconsistencies in casting between the dancers onstage vs. onscreen was also diverting. Picking out which guys got haircuts in the last seven years made for another good game. (The Lyon Opera troupe was filmed in 2016. Lewitt’s original movie was recreated shot for shot—marking the first time the film of “Dance’s” original cast had been supplanted).   

Occasionally, LeWitt’s film would freeze as the dancing onstage carried on. These pauses were all blurry, featuring trailing afterimages of the dancing bodies. A prevailing postmodern definition of dance is motion—any motion. Eating a sandwich, for example. Childs and LeWitt slyly acknowledged this by conveying movement even in these snapshots. This idea was neatly inverted in the second movement, Dance II, which was a solo (originally danced by Childs herself) that began with film alone, as the dancer Noëllie Conjeaud stood perfectly still in parallel in gigantic closeup on the screen for some minutes to Glass’s throbbing score. At first, especially after the insistent kineticism of the opening section, this nearly motionless motion picture could be mistaken for a still photo. But once your eyes adjusted to the new sense of scale, Conjeaud’s blinking and nearly imperceptible weight adjustments became dramatically exciting. Standing still onstage is the hardest thing of all, as anyone who has ever performed the opening of Balanchine’s “Serenade” can tell you. Against your own will, you will move. Though it was unconsciously done, Conjeaud’s slight swaying was the sole motion in “Dance” not rigorously tethered to Glass’s score. Thus, this stationary introduction showcased the only dancerly artistic freedom of the whole night. You could almost call it improv. 

Lucinda Childs's “Dance.” Photograph by Julieta Cervantes

Otherwise, the movement in “Dance” was simply, maddeningly bound to Glass’s incessant tracks; and it was performed all on one level. Though Childs’s vocabulary was small, it was not prosaic like eating a sandwich; chassés en tournant, soutenus, and fouetté jumps are certainly beyond the ken of most pedestrians. But these steps were done monotonously, without any adornment or chiaroscuro. Every jump was performed at the same skipping height. The dancers’ port de bras was stiff and erect, no epaulement or personal stylization seemed to be permitted. The cast maintained concentrated yet blank faces; they didn’t smile or exchange, “we’re almost there!” looks with each other. The committed Lyon dancers did a very good job of this upright neutrality. Even when they were clearly exhausted, they held their cores. Heaving ribcages and the occasional soft elbow were the only giveaways that this dance was grueling. How tired they must have been, physically and mentally!  

The focus required to dance to minimalist scores is intense. After the performance, I laughed with my date, an old City Ballet friend, about all the times we or our peers botched the steps in ballets set to Philip Glass or John Adams. There was the time my mind wandered in the Waves section of Jerome Robbins’s “Glass Pieces,” making for choppy waters. (Childs’s “Dance” was a major influence on “Glass Pieces,” though Robbins converted her computational thrust into a humanistic one.) Or the time when my friend and her partner leapt out of the wings too early at the top of Peter Martins’s “Fearful Symmetries” and had to ignominiously shuffle off and do it again. There was our colleague who was so sure her counts were right in Martins’s “Chairman Dances” that she convinced a whole line of people to cross the stage at the wrong time, causing a traffic jam. Hypnotic minimalism is rough on musicians too: once on tour, our orchestra got lost in “Glass Pieces,” and the conductor had to shout bar numbers from the pit. “Glass” has way more step variety than “Dance,” I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to repeat so few steps for an hour. It would require Zen master discipline. The yogic Lyon dancers’ minds were necessarily locked in as much as their bodies to Glass’s score (which was not played live but recorded, to sync up with the film, further adding to the rote predictability). Cleverly, that meant that the flesh-and-blood dancers’ mental projections were essentially the film—making the movie function like thought bubbles in a comic strip. 

Lucinda Childs's “Dance.” Photograph by Julieta Cervantes

This was Childs’s brilliant, if tedious, point. Instead of asking if commonplace activities were dancing, as she had done earlier in her career, in “Dance” she asked if compound ballet sequences done robotically were dancing too. The dancers were basically executing her code, endlessly repeating a few programming commands. In the current climate of AI fearmongering, this was a timely, terrific question. It’s rather amazing that Childs posed it 44 years ago. And if sheer replication was the goal, was there any meaningful difference between the live dancers and the film dancers? Do android ballerinas dream of electric sylphs? 

But there was an important difference. When Conjeaud stood and blinked on film at the start of Dance II to the pulsating score, it made me think of anechoic chambers. These are rooms carefully engineered to be truly silent (which never happens in nature). In a complete dearth of ambient noise, people become overwhelmed by the music of their own bodies: the sound of blood rushing in their ears, the thumping bass of their hearts, the rustling accordioning of their lungs. Famously, visitors cannot last long in these spaces. To me, watching “Dance” felt like sitting in a balletic version of an anechoic chamber. It was a rather unpleasant reminder of the unceasing looping of our bodies’ internal choreography. (As it happens, many previous audiences walked out; some pelted the dancers with eggs.) We don’t think about it too often, but even when we are not consciously moving, we are engaged in a banal interior ballet. We are always in motion on systemic and cellular levels, even when fast asleep. If dance is motion, per the postmodernists, then anyone with a pulse is a dancer. Childs’s title holds up well in this regard. 

But does it? “Life is a dance” seems too trite a thesis for a radical thinker like Childs. Really, her question was much bigger. Through the medium of dance, she was teasing out the principles of Cartesian dualism, which was why she needed the zombified compliance of a physically present cast. Her fabulous innovation, with the help of Glass and LeWitt, was to externalize the dancers’ interior whirring; to make their whole bodies—including their minds—beholden on a macro level to the same kind of droning music and choreography as their innards. What is dancing? Everyone’s answer will be different, but your own will depend on whether you think being alive is the same thing as living.        

Faye Arthurs

Faye Arthurs is a former ballet dancer with New York City Ballet. She chronicled her time as a professional dancer in her blog Thoughts from the Paint. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English from Fordham University. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and their sons.



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