Dance by Lucinda Childs. Photograph by Sally Cohn

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Staging Lucinda Childs' “DANCE”

Lucinda Childs is considered one of the pillars of the Judson Dance Theater collective and often hailed as a “master of minimalism.” In 1979, she created one of her pure dance works to a score by Philip Glass, while Sol LeWitt contributed film decor featuring the original cast of dancers. Layering rhythms, patterns, and images of dancing bodies, “DANCE”—the result of this collaboration between three art world icons—returns to New York City’s the Joyce Theater October 19-24. Candice Thompson spoke with producers and dancers Caitlin Scranton and Matt Pardo (The Blanket) about why this 40-year old work endures, what it demands, and what it means to be putting it back onstage in 2021. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This time around, you are both producing and dancing in this work. What has drawn you back to “Dance?

Caitlin Scranton: We were touring this work from 2009 to 2018 and then the company officially closed. Since then we’ve been trying to continue to produce it. In the pandemic I think we all felt a need to be dancing, and there was this search to get back to this piece in particular because it’s just so joyful for the dancer.

 It’s a collaboration between these three incredible artists, and all three elements come together really seamlessly. From the dancer’s perspective, it’s extremely physically rigorous and the cerebral side of it—the counting—is very demanding. It has this lovely element where no one ever touches each other, but you’re constantly communicating with each other, constantly aware of the other dancers in space in a way that I’ve never felt before in other other works. It’s very highly attuned, dancer to dancer. The partnerships between dancers are part of what makes the piece work and makes it really fun to dance.

Matt Pardo: Yes, like Caitlin mentioned there is this cerebral aspect with the polymetric nature of the music, as well as the complicated way that Lucinda composes the phrases—that is really unique. In order to make the full ensemble successful, the individual has to be successful inside of it. And so I think it’s this beautiful kind of mish-mash of making sure I know my track, but then also, how that track interplays with the other tracks around me. And then emotionally, there’s a special attachment. This work was revisited first when the company was reassembled. And so I think this work feels like home for this group in a really beautiful way.

With so many tracks being danced simultaneously, including the original cast on film, what do you do when you lose your counts?

CS: Because we’ve toured so much, we have millions of stories of the one time someone just forgot to come on stage or I thought I was done with counting and I just didn’t come on or you lost your count. Obviously in any dance you try to look like you know what you’re doing, but the great thing about this piece is that it’s repetitive choreography. So if you lose your count, you have steps to get on and get off. And then once you’re backstage, you can talk to each other. I often say we should sell tickets to the backstage, because there’s so much talking. If somebody gets lost in their tracks, you have your partner there to tell you, “this is in four counts, we’re going to do X, Y, and Z.” So it’s not a total disaster if you forget what you’re doing and people often do. I mean, it’s very, very hard to understand where you are in the music, to understand where you are in space all the time. So I almost like when we mess up a little bit, because it reminds you, ‘oh, this is an active thing.’ This is something that we’re constantly working at. It’s one of the only pieces I’ve ever had to be 100% present minded within, which is very satisfying. It’s also very scary.

MP: Oh, totally terrifying. Especially because then once you add the element of the film, as soon as you mess up, you and the audience are acutely aware because there’s another image of a dancer doing the correct version of what you should be doing. There’s a kind of humiliating and humorous element to that, but there’s also a thing that happens when you mess up where it’s almost like the audience realizes how impossible the task is. When someone has a slight wobble in terms of counting or anything, the audience is suddenly brought into the fact that we’re counting impossible structures and overlaying a polymetric score with polymetric movement patterns as well.

And the counts don’t always align—though they need to at a certain point and they will mathematically at a certain point. I think it’s this element of the work, and really all of Lucinda’s works, that is really beautiful if you get the opportunity that like Caitlin and I have—and most of the company has—to actually do the work over and over and over again. It’s not work where you can check out once the music starts; it’s work that every night is different and you have to manage the counting differently. There’s a freshness to it that doesn’t go away, even 10 years later.

What does it mean for the movement to be polymetric?

MP:  The music is in fours and sixes, and once in a while there’s a fifth count of four in a single musical structure. So instead of there being four fours, there will actually be five fours. So counting then becomes a matter of really anticipating those. And we do have score sheets backstage that help us navigate them in real time. But then, there are movement phrases in fours and sixes and in fives. On top of the music jumping around, you might possibly have to do a five count phrase in a six count meter. Then the second time you do the five count phrase, it might be bridging a four count meter that bleeds into a six count meter. It’s almost as if the movement has its own polymetric sense of self which is totally separate from the music in one sense, but also absolutely dependent on the music in another sense.

That makes me wonder about the current company. Have new dancers been folded into this cast?

CS: We haven’t had the luxury of time and space to bring new people into it because it takes so long to learn it. This group has been together for the better part of 12 years. It’s inside all of our bodies. So we have about two weeks of rehearsal to get it back up and running after not having performed it since 2018. Lucinda is very hands-on, she loves being with the dancers and comes to every rehearsal. I think we have a good chance of getting it right.

Caitlin Scranton in “DANCE” by Lucinda Childs. Photograph by Sally Cohn

What is the tension like between dancer and the film of the original cast? How much attention do you pay to it while you are onstage?

CS: I think we both have a different relationship with the film. There’s a group piece in the beginning, a solo in the middle, and then a group piece at the end. I do the solo in the middle. I’m dancing with Lucinda. And I pay a lot of attention to the film because it’s her solo. So the score she’s dancing when they filmed it—the dance is what she made it, at that time. Oftentimes, I get rid of the counts and I just watch her. I take my cue from when she goes, which is really nice because then it turns into a little bit of a duet. And even after dancing it for 10 years, I’m not doing exactly the same thing she is doing, which is also interesting, because it’s something that can’t really be known in that way, because it’s so unique to her. So yeah, I have a strong relationship to the film.

MP: The film is technically in front of us, so we can see the reverse of what the audience sees. It’s a really cool experience as a dancer to be engaging with a life-size human on a screen going across the stage. Or sometimes they’re huge. I mean, they’re 40 feet tall at some points. But it really isn’t something we consider in that moment, in Dance 1 and Dance 3, because we’re most often counting backstage to each other. We can see it and it’s fun, but it almost becomes like a light grid that’s just projecting different images.

What does it mean to you both to be producing this work while performing it, now?

MP: I love that we’re performing this work at this moment, as we are kind of coming out of the pandemic. This is my first piece that I’ll perform at this level since the pandemic began. And there’s just something that feels really right about coming back to this group of people and this work with Lucinda and also to have it be dancer-produced by The Blanket, meaning that the dancers have been with this work for so long, we are now producing this work and that we hold it in a different way.

CS: When the company closed, it was, from my understanding, because the producers we had were moving on to different projects. As a dancer, it’s very hard to find work always. And you have these things that you really love to do, and you don’t always have the opportunity to perform them. You’re waiting for calls from choreographers that you already work with or you’re constantly auditioning, and so once we lost our connection to be able to perform with Lucinda’s work, Matt and I sat down and thought, “well, if all we need is a producer, then let’s at least try to continue doing this because we love the work so much.“

It took us a while to get our company up and running and this is our first time producing for what was the Lucinda Childs Dance Company. When we talked to the Joyce during the pandemic, they were excited to produce this work because it is such a joyful piece and lively event to come out of this time with. And when we called up all the dancers who were retired from this piece, from this company, every single one of them said yes. Their first reaction was, “I’m so excited to get back. I so love this piece.” Their second reaction was, “oh my goodness, I’m going to break my feet.” The spirit behind the dancers is the same spirit with which we thought we could produce this: it’s so great and we love it so much. Why not just give it a go and we’ll see how it goes.

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