The brainy and beautiful Sarah Lawrence grad Lucinda Childs hit the New York performance scene over fifty years ago, attracting crowds with her rigorous, elegant dances. Part of the experimental downtown dance community for decades, she worked with Robert Wilson and Philip Glass on the epochal 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach and toured with her own pristine choreography. After folding her troupe in 2000, she did a lot of work abroad, mostly for ballet companies, finally reconstituting the Lucinda Childs Dance Company in 2009 to participate in revivals of Einstein and her smash hit Dance.
Now, at 76, she’s back to packing houses here. Her ensemble’s season at the Joyce began last week with a program of short pieces, titled Lucinda Childs: A Portrait (1963-2016). In its first half, four dances from the Sixties and Seventies let us watch the development of a genuinely minimal sensibility with no place for story or emotion. Her contemporaries in the visual arts, like Frank Stella, were making striped paintings; she made dances that carved clear paths, in which the only ornament might be a sudden change of direction or a contrapuntal arrangement of themes. In 1963’s Pastime, a sole female figure swirls an ankle, dangles a foot, stretches inside a fabric loop in what might be a nod to Martha Graham; the music, by Philip Corner, blurts and flushes like clogged plumbing. Following are three pieces performed in silence — one for men, two for women — highlighted by quick skimming runs, little skips, a trudge suddenly airborne. The upright, centered dancers occasionally swivel their hips; they seem indebted to Balanchine, and to the ancient Greeks.
Childs’s current crop of twelve performers is admirably diverse, various heights and colors; Shakirah Stewart, the smallest one, catches the eye as a bundle of energy; Katie Dorn shifts effortlessly from gliding with the women to striding alongside the men.
After intermission we saw newer pieces, all with dazzling lighting effects by John Torres. The 1993 Concerto, to music by Gorecki, sounded and looked a little muddy, with performers in loose black shirts, their floor patterns slightly askew. More recent pieces (to scores by John Adams, Simeon ten Holt, and Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld, respectively) startled in their use of partnered dancing and bright, citrusy colors. In Canto Ostinato, vertical lines of white light chased one another across the stage, creating illusions of motion atop motion, like watching the landscape from a train. With its lush orange lighting, closer Into View, commissioned by the Joyce and UCLA for this tour, suggested a tropical sunrise.
But these more illustrative works left me longing for the pure, clear marriage of forms achieved in Childs’s 1979 Dance, playing through Sunday. With that full-evening piece, Childs and collaborators Glass and Sol LeWitt achieved an almost perfect fusion of motion, sound, and light (Beverly Emmons’s original light plot is reproduced here). LeWitt’s gridded floor is seen now on film, with Childs’s current troupe moving onstage in perfect synchrony in front of the recording of the original cast. The modulations of Glass’s music provide a sonic and visual base for a dozen transcendently swirling men and women clad in A. Christina Giannini’s white trousers over leotards. These are no sylphs; the power of their rhythmic precision feels as inevitable and organic as hip-hop.
That comparison helps to explain what’s so remarkable about Childs: She shows us ballet as a study in geometry and gravity, rather than the form’s more traditional pretense of weightlessness and emotion. Dance is both historically significant and utterly contemporary — and definitely not to be missed.
Lucinda Childs Dance Company
175 Eighth Avenue
Through December 11