When Dance debuted in 1979, its shrill music, 35mm film, and assiduous dance passes outraged conservative audiences who promptly walked out of the performance. The modern dance collaboration between famed choreographer Lucinda Childs, innovative composer Philip Glass, and celebrated conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, is now considered groundbreaking. Dance mesmerized Spoleto audiences Friday night when it visited Charleston during its limited engagement revival.
LeWitt’s original film features black and white footage of the original cast and is projected onto a large translucent screen, or scrim, that covers the stage. The dancers’ proportions are magnified and their enormous translucent bodies loom ghost-like over the audience. Behind the scrim, the contemporary cast of dancers performs the identical choreography in unison.
In the first act, Glass’ music, a shrill and repetitive tune that features a flutist and indistinct chanting, sets an otherworldly tone. The dancers, costumed in matching androgynous white leotards and high-waist slacks, emerge from the wings in pairs. Performing simple, horizontal patterns, they move from left to right and disappear into the wings. Another pair immediately emerges, leaping and sashaying their way across the stage from right to left. New straight-line footwork patterns are slowly introduced into the continuous passes and multiple sets of dancer emerge simultaneously, alternatively mirroring, echoing, and splicing between each other with Blue Angel-like precision.
LeWitt, known for his simple geometric patterns and ability to reduce art to a few basic shapes, adds dimension to the live dance passes with his film, which shows the identical choreography executed on stage. His camera angles create new perspective on the movements; pirouettes seen from above are almost unrecognizable from those on a level plane. Layering on even more patterns, LeWitt experiments with split screen. The most memorable division is the film occupying the top half of the stage and the live dancers the bottom, illuminated in an eerie underwater-blue glow, which creates an upstairs/downstairs effect.
Act I concludes, and the music, whose repetitiveness has created a distressing tension, stops abruptly. The scrim becomes opaque and is filled with a stoic-faced solo dancer blown up to massive scale, her feet touching the stage floor and her head skimming the ceiling. The dancer’s severe beauty identifies her as Childs, who performed in the original production more than 30 years ago. Her stillness is broken by subtle blinks, and the audience fills with chatter as it realizes that the image is not a freeze frame.
Organ music begins, punctuated with piercing bells, whistles, and horns. Like Act I’s composition, it is simple, shrill, and repetitive, teetering on the brink of being jarring. The scrim becomes translucent, and soloist dancer Caitlin Scranton appears. She marches away from the audience, twirls back toward them, her arms extended in a controlled swing. Her passes, constrained to center stage, are more vertical and purposeful than those in Act I. Scranton and Childs repeat the exhausting series of passes for over 20 minutes. With absolutely no cues from the monotonous melody, Scranton’s ability to keep her place in the choreography is astonishing.
Act III returns like the chorus after the bridge. Pairs of dancers emerge from the wings, no longer restricted to straight-line movement. They leap diagonally across the stage. Variations on Act I’s choreography continue and passes evolve to include abstract interplay between the pairs. Upon a glowing golden stage they float, pause, and encircle other with relentless grace.
Toes pointed, torsos erect, the contemporary cast is filled with a balletic refinement absent in the free-form, experimental performance of the original cast. They embody the athleticism of life-long dancers who grew up with modern dance as an extension of formal ballet training, and they add a beauty not commonly associated with modern dance.
While contemporary audiences are more familiar with the avant-garde, Dance is as stirring today as it was 30 years ago. Spoleto Audiences left Gaillard Auditorium with renewed perspective.