Notes on the Reconstructions

by Lucinda Childs

My first association with the performing arts in Philadelphia began 50 years ago with the premiere of my solo Carnation (1964) at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) on April 24, 1964. The program included works by Robert Morris and Yvonne Rainer, and was produced by dance critic Jill Johnston. Years later, in 1980, some of my scores were included in “Drawings: The Pluralist Decade,” curated by Janet Kardon, also at the ICA, and then presented at the 39th Venice Biennale.

In the most recent project in Philadelphia, with The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, I had the rewarding opportunity to revisit and reconstruct seven works that I first created in the 60s and 70s.

Courtesy of Lucinda Childs.

Diagram for Carnation. Courtesy of Lucinda Childs.

The restaging of the earliest of these works—Pastime, Museum Piece, and Street Dance—presented an interesting challenge. Rather than relying on a score, I explained to the dancers how the dances were made and what sort of criteria they were based on rather than have them simply copy the work. That meant that the dancers could be involved in the original process of creation, and they were obliged to abide by the same rules and guidelines that I had set up for myself when I originally performed them.

Gabrielle Revlock performing Pastime, FringeArts, Philadelphia, 2013.

Megan Bridge performing Museum Piece, University of the Arts, Philadelphia, 2013.

Janet Pilla and Michele Tantoco performing Street Dance, Broad Street between Walnut and Sansom Streets, Philadelphia, 2013.

As for the other works, the reconstructions were based on my original notational scores, which consist of two-dimensional, frame-by-frame, overhead views of the paths of a dancer or dancers within an open and usually rectangular performing space. They describe the relationships of the dancers to each other in that space in set movement sequences of a fixed duration in time. These dances were for the most part all created without musical accompaniment and performed in silence. This means that the dancers had to sustain a common pulse among themselves, very much in the same way that Merce Cunningham trained his dancers to count in two-second intervals against the music of John Cage, which has no rhythmic pulse for dancers to follow in order to stay together.

Score for Calico Mingling. Courtesy of Lucinda Childs.

Calico Mingling (1973) was originally filmed by Babette Mangolte. Still, back then, I notated each of the four dancer parts with individual scores, so that the piece could be reconstructed with different dancers. I knew that it would be very difficult to reconstruct the dance from the film alone if one did not understand the formulaic structure of the dance; that is to say, the way that the identical movement patterns are repeated in space by different dancers in different ways, and exchanged from dancer to dancer. Each dancer in Calico Mingling performs a series of 40 phrases, which consist of six paces in straight vertical lines or in circular or semicircular loops forwards and backwards in space to the left or right. The arms swing freely and their movement is generated by shifts in direction. Part of learning to perform this piece involves mastering how to let this happen. The dancers are positioned on parallel lines four feet apart from each other, and when they are in unison they remain at a fixed distance from each other; when not, the distances between them expand and diminish from four to 40 feet. The semicircular or circular loops extend eight feet to the respective right or left of each of the dancers. In the first of four sections the dancers face the same direction; in the next, the same part is exactly repeated by all the dancers in the opposite direction; in the third, a pair of dancers perform their part facing towards the original first direction against a pair who face opposite; and in the fourth there is a final inversion of the two against two. Thus variation derives from manipulation in space of the same thematic material by being systematically removed from its original presentation. It would be possible, but not obvious, to figure this out from the film, and would probably involve the playing and replaying of each sequence extensively to be able to understand how the individual parts can be performed as exact repeats regardless of the directional orientation of the dancers to each other. This consideration is worked out in the process of making the dance, and there are moments throughout the piece when the dancers come in very close contact and must pass either in front of or behind one another. In order to see how this works, the individual scores for each of the dancers would need to be laid one on top of the other. All of my scores since then have been made with all of the dancers—each represented by a different color—notated together in the same frame. Still, it is very difficult to make sense of the crucial issue of blocking or of how the dancers interweave with each other without seeing the dancers in motion. This is why the animation of the score for Melody Excerpt (1977), conceived of by me many years ago but finally realized by Jorge Cousineau for this website, is so important.

Calico Mingling. Pictured in the photo are Susan Brody, Lucinda Childs, Nancy Fuller, and Judy Padow, Robert Moses Plaza, Fordham University, New York, 1973. Photo © 1973 Babette Mangolte. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1602, New York.

When Ty Boomershine, my assistant and a dancer in my company, began teaching Melody Excerpt (1977) and Interior Drama (1977) for the five dancers in Philadelphia in 2010, we adhered to the original blocking on the video. Midway through this process, however, we experienced cast changes, and found that since the new dancers were covering distances slightly differently from the ones they were replacing, we needed to re-block the work from beginning to end, which gave all the dancers a chance to be involved in the technical process of constructing the work, and to figure out what was involved in putting the sequences together. This was achieved by rehearsing two dancers together for a given passage, then adding a third, a fourth, and finally a fifth, until it became clear exactly how the passing must be done with the least amount of adjustment. This left each dancer free to perform their phrase covering the amount of space that they needed to execute it in a physically coherent manner (pertinent to their physical makeup), and within the space needed to make the passing of the dancers work organically. Melody Excerpt is extremely complex in this respect; it’s an enormous challenge for the dancers to keep the spatial alignment consistent.

Interior Drama. Dancers left to right are Megan Bridge, Nora Gibson, Annie Wilson, Michele Tantoco, and Gabrielle Revlock. FringeArts, Philadelphia, 2013.

Melody Excerpt. Dancers left to right are Nora Gibson, Janet Pilla, Megan Bridge, Michele Tantoco, and Annie Wilson. FringeArts, Philadelphia, 2013.

While the blocking or spatial execution of the phrases was unique for this particular group of dancers, the choreography—that is to say the steps or phrases themselves—remained exactly the same. I value that part of the process when the dancers accommodate the choreography to their bodies, revealing various degrees of difference always specific to the performer’s execution. The same was true for Interior Drama (1977) and Reclining Rondo (1975), very different works but both reconstructed in the same manner. Katema (1978) was originally a solo but I decided to reconstruct it as a quartet, partly justified by the existence of a film of the work performed by me as a solo by filmmaker Renato Berta in 1978. Even with the limited number of phrases of the same length for any of the dances and fixed points in space for each dancer, I found that the possibilities for combinations were infinite, so for Melody Excerpt I chose 20 sets of different combinations of eight figures. This means that in the score for Melody Excerpt, each line has eight configurations which represent the chosen combinations of different phrases performed by each dancer. When watching the dance, one is not necessarily aware that no single figure is ever repeated, but the advantage of having the score is that this is easily revealed. I’ve never calculated how long it would take to exhibit all the possibilities for the figures with different combinations for the dancers, but 12 to 15 minutes is the limit of the dancers’ stamina for this kind of work. My attraction to this way of working goes back to the idea of stepping outside of one’s self in the decision-making process, as with the chance methodology of John Cage. In the end the decisions for these dances are made by adhering to a structure that dictates a necessary way of doing things. As a choreographer, I have long valued the role of documentation. For instance, it was a privilege for me to have had the chance to observe film images of Fokine’s Les Sylphides from the early 1900s. This ballet could be considered an hommage to the emergence of dance as an art form, and it may have been partly inspired by the visit of Isadora Duncan to Russia at that time. There is absolutely nothing exhibitionistic in this dance, and though there are disagreements about the different versions, the ingenuity of the work for the corps de ballets stands out for me as an extraordinary achievement, which I treasure, and which signals the tradition of the great abstract choreographers of the future, most notably of course George Balanchine.

Reclining Rondo. Dancers front to back are Michele Tantoco, Janet Pilla, and Megan Bridge. FringeArts, Philadelphia, 2013.

Katema. Dancers front to back are Annie Wilson, Nora Gibson, Michele Tantoco, and Gabrielle Revlock. FringeArts, Philadelphia, 2013.

By comparison, what about Trend (1937), Hanya Holm’s famous dance (with a set by Arch Lauterer)? Could it ever be revived or reconstructed? The answer is no, unless by some miracle there are films of the dance stored away at Bennington College that have yet to be discovered. Thus while the Graham repertory survives more or less intact, many of the works of José Limon, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Holm, among many others, are missing and lost forever.

But documentation itself isn’t the answer. During the past fifteen years, I’ve been invited to set existing works of mine on other companies, mostly in Europe, and have found this challenging and rewarding. It was especially satisfying to be in the company of former Balanchine principal dancers at the New York City Ballet, such as Patricia Neary and Karin von Aroldingen, and to watch them setting Balanchine works on the dancers. I noted how skillfully they involved the dancers in the structure of the work. It helped me learn how to prepare for my own rehearsals and to work efficiently. It is important to make the choreography work and come alive for the dancers and be right for them, and it is also important to be ready to adapt. Now with new digital technology, all choreography could be saved and preserved with qualified professionals at hand without the direct involvement of the artist who created the work. Whenever I revisit a work I sometimes find that changes are necessary, especially—for example—with the recent revival of Einstein on the Beach. For the second “Field Dance,” the material is the same but it has been entirely restructured for the new group of dancers that I have worked with since 2009.

This essay was completed on August 14, 2014.

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