Dressed all in black, choreographer Lucinda Childs glided smoothly through a small crowd of dancers seated on the stage of the Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center Tuesday, concluding the day’s rehearsal for their performance this weekend. The dancers’ casual chatter and the scurry of the technical stage crew seemed to conceal the artistic enormity of the event for which they’re gathered. Like her simple black ensemble, Ms. Childs appears elegant and unassuming, yet she is a pioneer in the world of post-modern dance, a legendary force across multiple fields of performing arts.
“She’s a total luminary,” said Wendy Taucher, artistic director for the Yard, the Island dance colony. “Not just in the field of dance, but in the field of contemporary art and theatre as well. She worked and continues to work with the greats in the fields of art, music and theatre, which makes her unusual.”
Ms. Childs’ latest project is a revival of her 1979 production Dance. She was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship for the production that year, an annual award given to people who exhibit extraordinary talent and creativity in the arts. Last year, the Yard joined with Bard’s Fisher Center for the Arts to commission the revival, made possible by a grant from the New England Foundation for the Arts.
Dance originated as an avant-garde collaboration between the late artist Sol LeWitt, musician Philip Glass and Ms. Childs. Known more for his structural sculptures, Mr. LeWitt’s motion picture images of a dance performance choreographed by Ms. Childs were projected over live-action performances of the same dance, set to music by Mr. Glass. Mr. LeWitt was considered a “very important visual artist,” said Ms. Childs. He passed away two years ago, and a large retrospective of his art is currently on display at Bard College. “Bard liked the idea of this piece a lot because of Sol LeWitt, the visual artist whom I worked with 30 years ago. And it hasn’t been revived [until now],” said Ms. Childs.
She has played a central role in the revival process. She personally conducted the three-day auditions for nearly 250 dancers. She supervised the transfer of Mr. LeWitt’s original 35-millimeter footage to a digital format. And she acted as choreographer, helping the 11 performers chosen at the audition to master the moves, which she herself performed 30 years ago, in just six weeks.
It is the first time since 1979 that Dance will be performed in the U.S. “There are companies in Europe that perform the piece, so it’s in the repertoire of other companies,” she continued. “But it’s nice to be able to have a chance to do it here.”
“It’s abstract,” explained Ms. Childs of the piece. “There is no story. It’s sort of a collaboration in a sense that it’s a coming together of music and dancing and film . . . Thirty years ago, not so many people were doing that. So we’re happy that people feel it’s important to show it now. A lot of people now are working with mixed media and all different possibilities, but this was one of the first projects like that.”
Ms. Childs’ contributions to the dance world have long toyed with similar experimentation. She began dancing full-time at age 16, late for someone who went on to gain such distinction in the dance world. She majored in dance as an undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied under famed choreographer Merce Cunningham.
“[He was] my most important teacher,” explained Ms. Childs. “The whole term post-modern comes from him . . . He was the big inspiration for the whole group of post-modern choreographers like myself who started working after that.”
Ms. Childs gained distinction in the dance world with post-modern performance and choreography that challenged traditional standards of dance. She was the subject several years ago of a documentary about her life, by the filmmaker Patrick Bensard. In her long career, she has collaborated often with legendary Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, who fully supported the documentary project and shows up in the film rehearsing with Ms. Childs several times. According to Ms. Taucher, Mr. Baryshnikov held a screening of the documentary in the Baryshnikov Arts Center. “He was instrumental in screening the film in New York,” she said. At the screening, he proclaimed it an honor to introduce Ms. Childs to the audience.
Ms. Childs spent most of her life living in New York city, and danced as a member of Judson Dance Theater before forming her own dance company in 1973. She spent early childhood summers on the Vineyard with her family in the 1940s and 50s, and decided to move here full-time five years ago. “The whole Island has changed a lot, but I really loved going back up-Island, to Menemsha and Aquinnah,” she said. She currently resides in her home in Aquinnah. Though she knew of Patricia Nanon, who founded the Yard, this is her first time collaborating with the dance colony. It was their idea to co-produce the revival.
“I was very excited about the idea,” said Ms. Childs in an interview following the rehearsal Tuesday. She was seated in a folding chair pulled up to a table set up onstage. Her soft-spoken tone competes with bellowing crew members as they ready the scene for the complex presentation. Today, Ms. Childs doesn’t do much dancing but enjoys other performing arts. She is still an active choreographer, and she was eager to participate in the revival of her 30-year-old show.
The atmosphere onstage Tuesday gave little indication of the intense preparation required for the performance. The dancers began rehearsing in June for a July opening at the Bard College SummerScape performing arts festival; after a short break, they returned this week to perform on the Vineyard. Their tour continues in the fall, with performances in four different cities across the country.
“It [takes] a lot of concentration,” said Ms. Childs of Dance. “You have to memorize a lot, because the relationship of the dancers to the music is very precise, and the relationship of the dancers to each other is very precise. There is a lot to be aware of . . . .What’s been nice about this group is that they have all worked really hard and really been involved and really given the effort that it has needed to come up to a good level.”
“This is very athletic and technically difficult for the dancers,” agreed Ms. Taucher. “It’s a major thing to revive [Dance], and it was quite complicated to reconstruct.”
The dance world has come a long way in the years since Dance first premiered.
“To be honest, thirty years ago when we first performed this piece, people didn’t get it,” said Ms. Childs. “There were some people who really liked it, some people who just didn’t understand it, and some people who said well we just don’t even understand what relationship it has to dancing. Because it was just so different from the stuff they had seen.” After all this time, she said, she is surprised by how well-received the show has been by audiences. “We’re not telling [the audience] how they should react, but they seem to really enjoy it, which made me feel very good, and it’s great for the company, too.”
Dance is on stage at 6 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School in Oak Bluffs on Saturday and Sunday, with a supper to follow Sunday. Both Ms. Childs and Mr. Bensard will be in attendance. For tickets, call 508-645-9662.