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Relative Calm

Lucinda Childs/Robert Wilson's “Relative Calm” (1981/2022) opened the six-week long ImpulsTanz Vienna International Dance Festival in its 40th anniversary on July 7 at Vienna's Volkstheater. Its July 10 closing performance, which I attended, was sold out.


Lucinda Childs and Robert Wilson’s “Relative Calm”


ImpulsTanz Vienna International Dance Festival, Vienna, Austria, July 10, 2023


Eva S. Chou

Lucinda Childs' first reading from Nijinsky's diary in “Relative Calm.” Photograph by Lucie Jansch

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This “Relative Calm,” a revival and a remix of the two artists' 1981 work, premiered in Rome in 2022. It shows how forty years later, nay sixty years later if counting from her Judson Church period, the work of Lucinda Childs is still continually revived and restaged, still avant garde though it has long moved from church and YMCA spaces to established venues. In Vienna, demand for tickets added a fourth performance to the planned three. (The festival had a second Lucinda Childs program, "Lucinda Childs & MP3 Dance Project," which I did not have a chance to see.) 

“Relative Calm,” ninety minutes without intermission, has three sections of dance separated by Childs reading from Nijinsky's diaries. The dancers were 12 members of the Italian MP3 Dance Project directed by Michele Pogliani; costumes were by Tiziana Barbaranelli.

MP3 Dance Project in Lucinda Childs and Robert Wilson’s “Relative Calm.” Photograph by Lucie Jansch

The first of the three dances, “Rise,” is revived from the first dance of the 1981 "Relative Calm," whose music was commissioned from Jon Gibson. In Vienna, the dancers wear white pants and fitted white tunics with a broad black stripe down the back that echoes the broad white bars of Wilson's lighting. Three dancers in four diagonal lines begin to move along their lines in a casual, almost walking manner. Recalling Merce Cunningham, their motions became larger, a leg lifts to the front, then to the back, arms are added in second; there is a soft turn on two feet; directions change; the lines cross and return to home with the same steps, lift, lift, change of direction, soft turn. Variations enter unnoticeably and incrementally. The whole avoids clear stresses in steps or music, an evenness that belies the intense attention needed to dance variations within sameness and to continue thus for 25 minutes. In this demanding piece, the dancers Agnese Trippa, Giovanni Marino, and Nicolò Troiano especially stood out.

They turned out to be the lead dancers in the second, central work, newly choreographed for this tryptic version of “Relative Calm.” This dance is set, unusually, to music that is not commissioned and not minimalist: Stravinsky's 1922 ballet score “Pulchinella.” The costumes follow the Pulchinella period cue with stylized Renaissance accents: tights and ballet-style tunics for the men, modified stiff skirts for women, ruffled collars and built-out sleeves for all. With the costumes' stark red and black against a black backdrop of red arcs and with its newness, images from this dance are the most frequently reproduced. 

Giovanni Marino, Agnese Tripp, and Nicolò Troiano in Lucinda Childs and Robert Wilson’s “Relative Calm.” Photograph by Lucie Jansch

The three lead dancers begin seated on the far end of long benches, their backs to the audience, completely still. Slowly, the central figure (Agnese Tripp) turns her head one way and turns it back. More stillness. The other way and back. Two slowly turn their heads and turn back. Stillness. In time, other movements begin. The dancers rise from their seated positions. By dress and manner, these are aristocrats, not the common folk of Pulchinella stories. There seems to be no story, but there is hierarchy and deference. There is contact between dancers, and when the ensemble enters, there is, perhaps, some struggle or conflict. The benches become props to slide along or to sit on. The effect is at once both more ornate and more severe than the spare dances that bracket it. 

The third dance is set to John Adams' s “Light Over Water,” Part 3, the final, 18-minute part of a commissioned score that Childs premiered in 1983 as “Available Light,” and revived in 1994 and 2017. Here Gehry's two-level stage design is re-set on one level; Wilson provides circles of lights both in columns and free floating. Costumes are again white trousers and tunics, a little looser than the white ones of the first dance. The steps are likewise looser, with low attitudes, open turns on one foot, and low jumps added. Here as in the first dance, dancers are given varying number of steps in their turns. The patterns still repeat and change by increments, but there are other shapes besides lines. The effect is mesmerizing as the dancers draw the audience into their continual concentration. 

MP3 Dance Project in Lucinda Childs and Robert Wilson’s “Relative Calm.” Photograph by Lucie Jansch

The two intervals between the dances feature readings by Lucinda Childs in English of excerpts from Nijinsky's diaries, which, written over six weeks in 1919, show his thoughts and behavior becoming ever more disturbed. Wilson and Childs had earlier collaborated on the performance of Nijinsky's words in Wilson's 2015 “Letter to a Man,” in which the words were performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov with “collaboration to movements and spoken text by Lucinda Childs.” Now Childs performs the words. During her first reading, projected on the backdrop from end to end was a cheetah in midstride, scarcely in motion; for the second reading, herds of different animals thunder past. Both times, standing stage left and near the audience, spotlit only on her face, Child captures, by the angle of her head and the lilt of her intonation, the shrewd truths and the terrifying irrationality in Nijinsky's words.  

This was a tribute but also a painful contrast to the meticulous lucidity of an evening during which two artists were able to revive, survey, update, and add to their lifelong oeuvre.

Eva S. Chou

Eva Shan Chou is a cultural historian of China, currently at work on "Ballet in China: A History." She has published articles on the establishment of the Beijing School of Dance, on China's first Swan Lake, the founding figure Dai Ailian, and China’s cultural policies. For Ballet Review (New York)she wrote on performances by Stuttgart Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Opera Ballet of Rome, as well as companies from China performing in the US. She is professor in the Department of English, Baruch College, City University of New York.



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