In 1979, choreographer Lucinda Childs collaborated with composer Philip Glass and conceptual artist Sol LeWitt on an original dance piece simply titled Dance. Groundbreaking at the time, the work placed a troupe of nine live dancers behind a translucent scrim upon which a black and white, pre-recorded video of the dancers performing was projected. The interaction between the dancers on stage and the dancers projected on screen was stunning.
The partnership between Childs, Glass, and LeWitt was a natural one, as all were at the forefront of the period's vivacious experimental art movement, and the label "minimalist" had at one time or another been associated with each of them. "It was an abstract work," Childs says. "There's no narrative. There's no story. It's the same now as it was back then, but then people were shocked by it. The music was very different from what they had heard before."
After working with Glass on Einstein on the Beach in 1976, Childs' foundation commissioned him to write the music for Dance, and she bestowed to Glass total creative license to develop the sound of the production.
Childs and Glass then invited LeWitt to come on board and complete their vision. He used 35mm film to capture footage of the dancers. His film featured the same dancers performing the same choreography in synchronized time, yet through camera angles and film techniques, LeWitt revealed an entirely new perspective of the performance.
The completed project was genius. Its geometric simplicity was pure elegance, and it became revered as one of the most forward-thinking artistic works of the time.
Thirty years after Dance debuted, and just two years after DeWitt's death, the timing was right to commemorate the influential piece with a revival. In 2009, N.Y.-based Bard College approached Childs about presenting the piece at their annual SummerScape festival. She obliged, conditionally: the original 35mm film would have to be transferred to digital format and the soundtrack on the film had to be redone to ensure that "sound and film quality were back up to perfection and at the level it was in '79." Bard agreed to the terms and the four-month-long restoration process began.
Auditions were held in New York City five weeks prior to the SummerScape festival. More than 200 dancers vied for nine roles. Childs notes with a laugh that the new group of dancers — most of whom had just graduated from college — were not even born when the piece premiered. In just over a month, the cast was trained and ready to perform.
While the work remains largely the same, it resonates differently today than it did in 1979. To begin with, the dancers in LeWitt's video are the original dancers in the company — including Childs herself. The mirror-like quality of viewing the same dancers on film and on stage simultaneously has been altered by the replacement of the original live cast with a new set of youthful dancers. "You can tell that they're from a different period. It's the way they're moving. It's just a whole different feeling," Childs says.
LeWitt's detailed notes from the film still exist, so it could be remade according to the exact specifications; however, Childs doesn't have any desire to do that. "I think [the original film] adds something. Some people will say they're caught up in the fact that the dancers on stage are different from the dancers on screen, but I don't see it as a problem." In fact, Childs rather likes the contrast.
"Even though they don't touch each other and there's no contact, they really have to be very tuned into each other," she says. "For me, they're very connected because of that."
Charleston will get to decide for itself if Dance connects as powerfully with audiences as it did 30 years ago.