Lucinda Childs’s dances fall together as if they’ve been arranged by a divine mathematician, the same one who set the Fibonacci sequence into snail shells and fractals in the forest’s leaves. Her instruments might be human enough, the dancers walking, skipping, and swinging their arms like any old John Doe off the street. But then, through their insistent repetition of menial gestures, you peer past the scrim of bodies to the grander design behind them.
The corps de ballet members in Swan Lake have Tchaikovsky’s plush rhythms to guide their syncopation. Here the silence means that dancers have only what Childs calls a “pulse,” the sound of footsteps and their line of sight allowing them to keep in step. Sometimes, when carving backwards through space, they don’t even have that, and yet they still manage to keep at it. This can be explained, I’m sure, by hours of preparation in the studio. The distant, wayward look on the dancers’ faces betrays the fact that they’re secretly counting out the measures with a vengeance; if they lost it, they’d be done for. But there’s something uncanny about this shared pulse, as if one body might start knowing and anticipating another via a kind of sixth twinning sense. In interviews, Childs will often cite this seemingly supernatural congruity as the apogee of her choreographic achievement.
Her early works at this retrospective, spanning the period of 1963 – 1978, show the critical transition she made from choreography driven by objects and minimalist scores to a dance stripped down to bodies moving in silence. In Pastime (1963), a piece made before the shift dedicated to the flexed foot, one of the dancers unfurls her leg from a gray stretch tube with all the drama of a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. But by the time she made the music-less Calico Mingling (1973)—four men in white chasing each other in circles, their small steps like old-movie slapstick—Childs had, in going silent, found her compositional voice. Quite literally, too; it was by virtue of her post-Judson five-year hiatus from choreography, during which time she went to ballet class and read up on art history, that she developed her chiseled, minimalist force.
When one of these silent pieces starts, I am (sheepishly) bored. The dancers trace different shapes depending on the piece, and the counts vary, but the concept remains the same. And the concept, quite frankly, is not all that interesting. The scores of Childs’s dances look like the chalked designs in high-school geometry classes, and I pay attention to them dutifully, as I did while a schoolgirl. But then, once the pattern has been well established—okay, there’s the circle, there’s the hop-skip at the end of the third eight-count—the dance evolves from its base. As the echoes between the dancers’ movements come into focus, some sort of Zen kicks in. It’s a pleasure of the mind that’s not quite intellectual, a vision of the body that forgets, briefly, the human image traced therein.
The ephemerality of dance usually renders it evanescent in hindsight, a fiction of the senses. Gesture is fugitive, difficult to remember and reconstruct. The math of Childs has the opposite effect, rendering the choreography concrete and objective. I could describe very precisely, in most cases, exactly what I had just witnessed. High moments of suspense are defined when a dancer pivots and performs the same movement backward. And yet the mystery of what they’re doing somehow becomes greater. In Reclining Rondo, for example, I never once saw any of the three men move differently from each other. Yet though they all started in the same direction, one of them was suddenly facing elsewhere—a marvel built in small, imperceptible steps.
The most tangible revisiting of Childs’s work took place when she herself stepped out into the Marron Atrium, her lithe body all in gray. The onlookers fell into a deeper hush and even looked a little afraid. Her solo Particular Reel was not listed either in the program, which made me think that its very performance depended on how her seventy-eight-year-old body felt. Yet there she was in spectral fierceness, staring past the audience at the edge of the makeshift stage, wavering between resolute certainty and surprise at where her feet might take her. No matter that I had already figured out the choreographic grapevine-like pattern and could have mapped it out on the floor like an equation: I too felt that surprise, the inevitable and predetermined giving way to wonder.
MADISON MAINWARING is completing her PhD in French at Yale. She has contributed to The Believer, The Economist, and Harper’s Magazine, among other publications.