Time for a Phil Glass Conversation.

[This review covers a performance of “Dance” shown in July, 2010, at The Schubert in New Haven, CT.]

“Dance” is choreographer Lucinda Childs’s afterthought to “Einstein On The Beach,” the first of composer Philip Glass’s and artist Robert Wilson’s operatic trilogies performed in 1974.  “Einstein” premiered stylistic innovation seen throughout the creators’ careers; Glass’s cyclical repeating chords poeticized lead-performer Childs’s choreography, making both art mediums variously interpreted.  The performance lasted four and a half hours without intermission and the audience could get up and go as they pleased.  Many didn’t know what the opera meant which didn’t matter, though creators Glass and Wilson later implied something about a cultural awareness for the inner workings of pacifist and atomic bomb creator Albert Einstein.  Regardless, the performance elbowed its way into our cultural history as a defiant blend of operatic drama and contemporary thought, placing Glass, Childs, and Wilson in the forefront of the latter-half of 20th century art.   

“Dance,” performed at the Schubert last week to a recording of Glass’s ensemble, portrays musical rigor unlimited by physical nuance.  Early patron and comrade to Glass and Childs, conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, re-edited a 1979 recording of a premiere of “Dance” in 35 mm black-and-white film, and projected it onto a clear screen in front of the dancers during the performance.  This makes for a palimpsestic print of visuals: the thin screen of enlarged figures is like an overlaid mono-print that informs, confuses, and coordinates itself with the actual dancers behind it who stream across stage, stoic-faced, in sparse, rectilinear patterns. They move like an electric current for the entirety of the performance.  LeWitt gently distorts the visual consistency of the dancers on screen through editing techniques—half-frames, stills, sequence cuts— which the real-time performers mimic.  The chromatic stage lighting, designed by on- and off-broadway lighting designer Beverly Emmons, occasionally alternates from blue, to yellow, and then to red at musical peaks—yes, Glass’s music can be climactic—and then switches back to a utilitarian glow. 

Like minimalist art, a label Glass interestingly avoids, “Dance” exudes enigma and the arcane, and audience reactions never rest on one person alone; some love it and others hate it. Some feel surrounded by a sonic storm while others, a heightened way of seeing.  “Dance’s” stylistic effects originate not just from Glass’s music, but from physical differences in the piece’s real-time and recorded choreography.  As Glass suggests in interviews, dissonance creates an articulated language with which viewers engage. “Dance’s” monotonous, repeated musical chords and de-centralized, stiff choreography demand its audiences’ patience though, which might be irritating for unconditioned listeners. The performance is partitioned by dance solos that separate the three-part piece into 20-minute increments. Childs mentioned in interviews that the solos slow the performance down, giving the audience time to absorb it.

Before “Einstein,” Childs co-founded the Judson Dance Theater in 1963, an influential avant-garde dance collective that incorporated new movements and objects into its dance performances.  If you youtube Childs, you can see her in 1964 biting into several sponges at once, wearing a hat made out of metal wire and curlers.  After “Einstein” and since the early eighties, Childs has received various commissions from major ballet companies and operas in the U.S. and Europe and has worked with, among others, the famous choreography of Martha Graham, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and has worked with artists such as (architect) Frank Gehry, and John Adams.  In 2004, Childs was appointed France’s Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

With all that Childs has choreographed, “Dance” helped propagate a certain kind of criticism: dancers glide on and off stage without human interaction or discernible feeling to repetitive music some say is too simplistic.  Those of the Glass faith, however, will find themselves satiated by this performance.  Glass’s obsession with training and technique rings true in his sound, and in how hard these dancers work on stage. Glass believes that music should “vividly” collaborate with subject matter, though he might be too authoritative here; the dancers seem limited, only performing finite gestures in accordance with the sounds of repeating cyclical chords.  Would it be a problem if the performance was titled “Sound” instead of “Dance?” Perhaps you should also find out, in conjunction with watching “Dance,” what Childs’s other performances are like when she’s not working with Glass.

[This review covers a performance of “Dance” shown in July, 2010, at The Schubert in New Haven, CT.]

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