Lucinda Childs is an American choreographer and performer whose often collaborative work is highly influential and acclaimed, especially in Europe, where she has lived since 1981.
Composition, or the final form one arrives at, involves a process that is for me quite unpredictable. To this day no matter how much preparation I’ve done, I walk into a studio never sure what will happen. I could almost laugh at the surprises: something that I thought would be good falls absolutely flat, and then something else that I almost threw out works very well. I must have around a thousand pages of scores for all the dances I have choreographed. In some cases there are different versions for each dance; the scores are frame-by-frame overhead time-maps that record the relationship of the dancers to the space and to one another (and to the music, when there is any). And then, in the end, when I revisit the dance, it seems as though it happened all by itself.
I always say that I’m not really mathematically inclined, but I do a great deal of measuring with numbers of time and space as a means to see all the possibilities. I give myself a limited set of options with a set series of phrases that are distinct from one another but never entirely unrelated to the original first phrase created. I find that when I’ve committed myself to this way of working, all kinds of possibilities emerge that I would never have discovered otherwise. I love the discipline involved in developing material in this detailed fashion. This comes, of course, from the lessons of the 1960s, when we were inspired by John Cage and Merce Cunningham to step outside the realm of personal choice in making decisions in the creative process. Cunningham created his own vocabulary and then subjected it in time and space to chance methodology.
Those of us at Judson Dance Theater wanted to go one step further to include found or pedestrian movement, completely outside any known dance vocabulary. These works were performed in silence or in my case with monologues that to some degree dictated action that drifted in and out of relevance to what was being said, as with Museum Piece (1965). Cage would provide music that the dancers sometimes never heard until their first performance, so they kept the choreography together by counting very precisely in two-second intervals. I remember the thrill of watching the Cunningham dancers rehearse in silence. The experience was the inspiration for my pieces in the 1970s that I made with no music, some of which I have reconstructed recently with dancers in Philadelphia.
But even with the experiments of the 1960s, I have always made choices for both the material itself and how it is used. Some of my phrases develop from simple changes of direction—half turns, full turns—and this generates the movement of the upper body and arms while the footwork is very precise and bound by a certain tempo, which all the dancers abide by. Sol LeWitt’s famous line drawings inspired my structures. In one of them he chose a progressive sequence—1 with 2, 1 with 3, and so on—which consists of arcs from the four corners of a square, with arcs from the center of its four sides, and the same with straight lines, not-straight lines, and finally broken lines. If I try to include all the options for any given dance, however, it would take forever to perform, and I’m obliged to limit the length of each piece to no more than fifteen minutes, which even then demands enormous energy and concentration from the dancers. Melody Excerpt (1977) consists of 158 chosen sequences in which the five dancers begin one of four 14-count phrases commencing left or right from fixed positions in the extremities of the space. In Interior Drama (1977), the three longer 160-count phrases are repeated left or right as a duet against a trio from fixed positions in the space, and with Reclining Rondo (1975) the dancer’s orientation is between two diagonals that divide the space with left and right orientation of the same 18-count phrase. The final version reveals the same material over and over again but never in the same way. There is no way to know what will come next without following the score. The final design comes from playing out the phrases against one another and finding a sequence that makes sense in terms of contrast. That part of the process tends to defy the notion of repetition even though that is exactly what’s happening. I aim for a result, which is a playful rollout of physical counterpoint for the eyes and ears.
Lucinda Childs, Pastime, 1963. Premiered at Judson Memorial Church, New York, January 30, 1963. Music by Philip Corner.
Lucinda Childs, Street Dance, 1964. Premiered at the studio of Robert and Judith Dunn, New York, July 23, 1964.
Lucinda Childs, Museum Piece, 1965. Premiered at Judson Memorial Church, New York, March 12, 1965.
Lucinda Childs, Interior Drama, 1977. Premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music, November 1977.
Lucinda Childs, Melody Excerpt, 1977. Premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music, November 3, 1977.