“I want to start again,” echoed a recording of Lucinda Childs throughout Barnard Hall’s Held Auditorium, “I’m crying out for new experiences, passports to different places.” The passport that took Childs across the world? Modern dance. From childhood summers at Martha’s Vineyard, to time spent at the Judson Dance Theater in Manhattan, to reaching a pinnacle of fame as a choreographer in Europe, Childs drew inspiration from across the globe and synthesized it into a thought-provoking performance movement. Now she choreographs on an island, secluded from the outside world.
Lately, Childs has been revisiting her 50-year-long career as a seminal figure of modern dance. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, she returned to the New York City collegiate dance scene to speak on a panel at Barnard on Oct. 26, following a rare public film screening of Patrick Bensard’s documentary tribute to her career.
Petite yet poised with an aura of seriousness, Childs radiated intensity from the panel. Such perceptions were overridden, however, when the documentary began with her deliberately lowering a kitchen frying basket on top of her head and stuffing her mouth with half a dozen sponges, choreography from her piece “Carnation.”
"The power of that solo was the completely glamorous persona doing these ludicrous things,” dance writer Susan Sontag said. “She was turning her head and face into a surrealistic Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck contraption."
The documentary provoked a myriad questions from viewers. Fortunately, Bensard, the founder and former director of the Cinémathèque de la Danse in Paris, along with dancer and Columbia adjunct lecturer Vincent McCloskey and dance scholar Lynn Garafola, joined Childs in conversation to respond to the audience’s curiosity.
Childs began her professional career as a choreographer and performer in the early 1960s, where she was a founding member of the Judson Dance movement. The venue, Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square, presented experimental works that rejected formal aspects of ballet and historical modern dance. Developed within the context of the Beat Generation, Childs’s work presented a “strict avoidance of cliché, of anything that would make the work disjunctive,” according to Sontag.
Childs championed the idea that dance could be inspired by anything from anywhere. Within the context of a college campus, Childs said, “You don’t go to a literature class, then close the door and go to a dance class.” No specific technique was followed. “There’s no Lucinda Childs vocabulary,” she said. No specific training was mandated. Some might say no meaning was expressed, that she was a “minimalist artist.”
Yet Bensard suggested that while Childs’s work might have been technically minimalist as there were few costumes or sets, it was not contemplatively minimalist. In fact, the stripping away of excess scenery from her work arguably makes the movement’s meaning more distinguishable. “It’s not totally true that she’s a minimalist choreographer. She works within a minimalist style, but I don’t think her content is minimalist,” dance critic Anna Kisselgoff commented.
At the beginning of her solo “Dance,” Childs stands still. She blinks, and that is all. “For a minute and 18 seconds the only motion I think is there is my eyes blinking,”Childs said. “You have a very emotional reaction to it,” Kisselgoff said. “You can hate it because you can say nothing happens. The same people are repeating the same thing. Or you can look at the detail and where the permutations come into play.”
Ironically, France became one of her strongest sources of support. Childs’ works are most largely celebrated in Europe and France in particular, where she has created pieces for the Paris Opera Ballet and is now a commander in France’s Order of Arts and Letters. When asked why France was so welcoming, Bensard reflected that the country in the ’70s was “such a bizarre scene. I was not prepared to see [Lucinda’s work]. Suddenly, we arrived in the theater and we saw something that we know we will never forget. It taught us a new way to consider dance.”
Childs’ involvement in the world of performance has blossomed far and wide from its beginning at the Judson Memorial Church. She’s dabbled in theater and acting for screen, worked with operas worldwide, and collaborated with musicians and other artists. As her work will be performed at the Joyce Theater Nov. 29 through Dec. 11, Childs is anticipating the emergence of “another dimension added [to the work] because it’s 30 years later.” While it may seem that the program’s revisitation of her work is a premature tribute to her career, Childs maintains that her career is not over yet.
“I’m 76 and I still perform,” she said with an insistence that provoked no debate. While her work brings forth countless questions, her vivacity and identity as a true artist is incontrovertible.
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