Postradical Chic

Antidisestablishmentarian: Lucinda Childs.Photo: Michael O'Neill

Lucinda Childs is one of countless American artists, past and present, who’ve found themselves far better appreciated abroad than in the States. Last seen in New York in 1994, she has long flourished in Europe, particularly in France, where the government has not only inducted her into the prestigious Order of Arts and Letters but also granted her substantial economic support. This season found her briefly back home, presenting her “Parcours” at bam’s Harvey Theater to an audience that, to judge by appearances, consisted of card-carrying members of the artistic intelligentsia – the type most likely to embrace her aesthetic of luminous minimalism.

“Parcours” – a fluid term best translated here as “journey” – was designed as a retrospective of Childs’s long, distinguished history in postmodern choreography. Her career began in 1963, when she was part of the iconoclastic Judson Dance Theater; ten years later, she formed her own company. For the past three decades, she’s been an emblem of the new impulse in dance that proposed alternatives to both classical ballet and modern dance in its humanistic, mid-century guise. Run as an unbroken 80-minute program, “Parcours” contains old work and new. It shows Childs hewing to her principles of defiant austerity while entertaining, as time goes by, the wiles of all the fancy things she once refused in order to strip dance down to its essentials.

Aptly, the oldest piece, Radial Courses, from 1976, opens the show. Using the light, brisk, precise step that was to become Childs’s signature, four men in pale work clothes trace linear, then wheeling paths across the stage. Even when their routes develop some geometric permutations, they remain adamantly clear. The crisp tread keeps a steady pulse that is the heartbeat of the dance. At times, the walking step is inflated to a neat little leap; at its most baroque, it becomes a tiny turn. Still, the travel remains adamantly even-keeled; nothing is allowed to detract from the theme of steady pace. And there’s nothing else: no musical accompaniment, no inflection in the movement, no personal expression. The body in space, the step, and the pattern are deemed to be sufficient. And in this modest, handsome piece, they are.

Having reduced her vision of dance to such ground-zero terms, though, Childs had nowhere to go but gaudier. The other works in “Parcours” document her readmitting – on her own terms, of course – all those time-honored, seductive theatrical elements she had scorned: grand scale, music, chic costumes, decorative lighting and décor, dancers recognizing one another’s presence, flickers of expression, and even (this is the big concession) nonpedestrian steps. Variété de Variété, made just this year, attempts to color standard Childs procedures with generic tango-palace goings-on – a futile task. A typical effort from the nineties, From the White Edge of Phrygia, set to a score that sounds like movie music, is conceived in terms of danger-inflected fiery reds and haunting blues. It almost seems to be “about” something: the thrill of sexual antagonism, the melancholy of the lonely crowd. Frankly, it seems a bit cheap.

I’m clearly resistant to Childs’s reincorporation of the elements she made her name rejecting. The music seems arbitrarily chosen and used more for atmosphere than for any rhythmic connection to the dance. The natty jumpsuits that have replaced anonymous practicewear scream designer. (Alliances between postmodern dance and the fashion world are generally suspect, I think.) The slightly enlarged vocabulary feels skimpy, while the reduced one was amplified by the force of refusal. And it’s not just these specifics that are troublesome. In general, Childs shows no taste for the lavish and no gift for it; no wonder her gestures in its direction are trite and feeble.

Of course, there’s a problem with the early radical works, too, the ones for which Childs deserves to be remembered. They are so restricted, so uncompromising, that while in short takes the material is undeniably refreshing – even illuminating – large doses can alienate the viewer by allowing him time to realize how much of life’s abundance is being denied. Childs’s original principles were bracing and admirable, but dancing, the art of human bodies in motion, rarely captivates through an idea alone.

new yorkers know julio bocca best as one of American Ballet Theatre’s sensational male virtuosos. But Bocca is distinguished for qualities beyond his feats of derring-do, and these came to the fore when he appeared at the City Center with Ballet Argentino, a company of his compatriots. These “family” circumstances, in which his stardom was acknowledged without his having to prove it, allowed for greater emphasis of the finer points of his dancing: the precision and polish, the deep rhythmic sense, the gallant partnering, and the intelligence and imagination brought to bear on even the most ordinary material.

Given the resonance of his dancing, Bocca can make execrable choreography acceptable – a valuable gift, considering the repertory Ballet Argentino offered. The first half of its single program was heavy on hapless attempts to blend shards of the classical vocabulary with clichés from modern and postmodern dance; the second half was given over entirely to a tango mini-revue that belongs on Broadway, where the obvious and the hard sell can serve to advantage.

Ballet Argentino’s dancers are quite wonderful; not a single one of them is really world-class, perhaps, yet they’re better able to disarm an audience than most big-time performers in possession of better bodies, more highly developed technique, and greater theatrical know-how. They’ve been bred as a group to a style securely founded on classical ballet’s venerable code of precision, harmony, and aplomb. When it’s not distorted by misguided choreography, their dancing is large in scale, open, soft, and light. In enormous leaps, for example, they fly up into the air and soar through it with seemingly effortless calm. Best of all, these modest practitioners present themselves sweetly and guilelessly, convinced, it would seem, that dancing itself, not ego, will win the day. Bocca’s manner with them onstage is just right; he treats them as his equals.

Postradical Chic