Look at a portrait of Lucinda Childs’s face (“like Catherine Deneuve crossed with Katharine Hepburn” according to the New York Times), and you get a portrait of her choreography: a clear, no-frills beauty; sharp intelligence that’s a little unreadable; great underlying structure.
Childs was born in New York in 1940. After studying dance at college, she met Yvonne Rainer at the Cunningham Studio, who invited her to join the new Judson Dance Theatre, an avant-garde artistic collective who experimented with ordinary movement, non-theatre spaces and found objects. For a few years she lived a divided life: “I never gave up the classical training,” she recalled, “but I also committed myself totally to the Judson experience … In the morning you’d go to ballet class and in the afternoon you’d carry mattresses and that kind of thing.”
In 1968, tired of begging dancers to work for free, she left dance altogether to become a schoolteacher. But five years later, with government funding, she launched her own company. Despite critical hits and groundbreaking works – notably the Robert Wilson/Philip Glass opera Einstein on the Beach (1976, co-choreographed with Andy DeGroat), and Dance (1979, with Glass and Sol LeWitt) – Childs struggled to find funding, and in the early 1980s she took up more generous offers of support from France. Since then, she has worked more in France and Europe than in America – where even her 25th anniversary season was delayed by two years because of financial problems.
She has also diversified, having received many choreographic commissions from companies such as the Paris and Lyon Opera Ballets, the Dutch group Introdans, the Italian MaggioDanza and Aterballetto, the British Rambert Dance Company, as well as the American Pacific Northwest Ballet, the Martha Graham Company and Mikhail Baryshnikov. She has appeared as an actor/performer in several productions by Robert Wilson, and since 1992 also worked widely as a choreographer and director for opera, notably with Luc Bondy.
Watching Lucinda Childs
Childs’ early works – mostly solos for herself, without music – were in the questing spirit of Judson Dance Theatre. Carnation (1964) was a series of strange but banal actions in the manner of a Robert Rauschenberg combine featuring “found objects” such as hair curlers, a colander, a plastic bag, a sock. In Street Dance (1964) the audience listened to taped instructions while Childs and another dancer disappeared into a freight lift and reappeared in a doorway over the road.
In the 1970s Childs moved from conceptualism to minimalism, constructing choreography from repeated patterns and permutations, and using simple but recognisable dance steps to create a kind of cellular, cumulative choreography – “prehistoric ballet”, as critic Arlene Croce put it. Works such as Dance (1979) and Available Light (1983) typify this approach, with the dancers like atoms spinning and skimming some larger, more cosmic structure. The effect is not dramatic, but hypnotic: a shimmering play of patterns, like light on water.
Also during this period, Childs first began to work on the proscenium stage, with musical scores and on a larger scale – a departure triggered above all by her collaboration with Robert Wilson and Philip Glass in Einstein on the Beach (1976). Since the 1980s, Childs has expanded her scope: she began to use pointe work and has widened her choice of music, subject and compositional methods. But some quintessential qualities remain: simplicity of presentation and complexity of construction; a greater interest in patterning than partnering; a focus on form; clarity.
Childs has rarely worked with a regular company, but there are some artists to whom she has returned several times: composers Philip Glass and John Adams, directors Robert Wilson and Luc Bondy.
Childs once performed in a full-length white dress made of ostrich feathers. The event was artist James Lee Byars’s The Mile Long White Paper Walk in 1965. Byars duly noted his expenses: dress, $288.75; hat, $68.25; Lucinda Childs, $50.
In her own words
“What we were fighting for – especially my generation – is that dance is in and of itself a beautiful thing … It can just be the form itself, as an abstract form, and still be a moving experience, and a human experience.” – From Postscriptum, documentary by Patrick Bensard, 2010.
“Even when I danced in silence I still considered my choreography musical because it involved precision of timing, phrasing and rhythm.” – Interview with Jack Anderson, New York Times, 1994.
“I enjoyed all the experimentation at the Judson, but at a certain point, I wondered, ‘Supposing one were to let go of the objects and the texts and the whatnots, what would be left?’ I enjoyed just dealing with the very simple movements that would be considered perhaps pedestrian: walking, changing directions. After pop art, which seemed like the end of everything, the minimalist movement was just the opposite. Everything was beginning, everything could be reduced to the seemingly simple.” – Interview with Alan Riding, New York Times, 2000.
In other words
“Lucinda Childs’s pure, spare dances suggest that her heart and mind inhabit some upper region of the sky. But her feet are clearly on the ground.” – Jennifer Dunning, New York Times, 1987.
“In their imaginative positioning, inversions, repeats and phrasing that progressed in detailed increments, the dances took on a glistening fascination, allowing audiences to focus on the majesty of movement within a context of space, light and music.” – Iris Fanger, Dance Magazine, 2000.
“In her prime, she was fabulous – brisk and pure, something between an angel and an alien.” – Joan Acocella, New Yorker, 2009.
“The lucidities of Lucinda.”
A poetic phrase from dance critic (and poet) Jack Anderson.
“But what about her inner Childs?”
As a fledgling choreographer, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker was inspired by Childs’s work.
Now watch this
Carnation (1964), created at Judson Dance Theatre
Part one of a documentary about the 1984 production of Einstein on the Beach. The original 1976 production was choreographed by Childs and Andy DeGroat; later revivals were revised with just Childs’s choreography
Revival of Dance (1979)
Chacony (2002) created for Mikhail Baryshnikov
Concerto (2006) performed by Dutch company Introdans
Where to see Lucinda Childs next
See the Lucinda Childs website for performance dates.