A Feat Beyond Certainty: American Composer-Choreographer Relationships

The symbiotic relationship that characterized the Stravinsky-Balanchine collaboration would not be seen again in the 20th century. But the Minimalist movement in American music that began in the 1960s was to have a major impact on modern dance, with scattered collaborations between composers and choreographers that influenced the development of both dance and music in the last quarter of the century.

Steve Reich and Philip Glass had disavowed the Minimalist label by the time they began to work with Laura Dean and Lucinda Childs. But the Minimalist sensibilities that informed their early music found a home in the dance of Dean and Childs, each of whom set dances to commissioned as well as existing scores by the composers. Important changes in the work of all four artists occurred during the time they worked together most concentratedly, in the 1970s, though the shifts cannot be attributed entirely to mutual influence.

The composers’ popularity was not limited to the two choreographers, though Dean and Childs were the first to focus on their music. Jerome Robbins was drawn to Glass’s music and created Glass Pieces in 1983 for the City Ballet. Eliot Feld has choreographed 11 ballets to Reich scores. John Adams, who has been described as a second-generation Minimalist, is today one of the most popular of name composers among ballet choreographers, including Peter Martins, artistic director of the City Ballet, and many downtown or experimentalist modern-dance choreographers in New York City.

What is it about the music of Reich and Glass that has made it so appealing to choreographers? The two were alive and accessible to artists intent on creating a “new dance” that broke away from the restrictive-feeling traditions of the past. “Steve and I know each other’s souls,” Dean said in 1987. “Never in my wildest dreams would I think of setting a piece of Beethoven. I can’t talk to him.”

Reich and Glass are unashamed of their reputations as composers of music for dance. Both have talked of their interest in the art. “I think Ezra Pound said that poetry atrophies if it gets too far from music, and music atrophies if it gets too far from dance,” Reich has said. “I tend to agree with that.” And Dean, who was emboldened to compose her own scores after working with Reich, put the connection succinctly. “The sound is very important in determining the quality of a dance,” Dean said in 1990. “For me, the steps and the music are intertwined. Music is rhythm, dance is space. They come together to form patterns.”

Pattern and repetition were all-important in the Minimalist dance and music of the 1970s. The movement was relatively simple at first, as the titles of Dean’s dances early in the decade suggest. From 1971 to 1974, she created “Stamping Dance,” “Square Dance,” “Circle Dance,” “Jumping Dance,” “Changing Pattern Steady Pulse,” “Spinning Dance,” and “Walking Dance,” among other pieces.

The freewheeling, often amusingly nose-thumbing experimentation of the postmodernist Judson Dance Theater days in the 1960s, in which Childs participated, was followed by a rigid systemizing of movement. Eventually the amateur dancers favored by many Judson choreographersóor would-be amateurs getting into the spirit of the thingówere replaced not just by professionals but by virtuoso (and increasingly impersonal) dancers with the technique and stamina to make clear not only the steady journey to the end of a dance but also the often almost impalpable permutations of movement and gesture along the way.

Both Childs and Dean focused on movement itself in the newly pure way of the time, a reductionist version of Balanchine’s concern with dance for its own sake. Dean has often talked of her pre-choreographic experimentation with movement as starting with stillness, as a confused ‘60s hippy closeted in a room in San Francisco, and very gradually building to the simplest of human motion. At the start of her choreographic career, Childs explored shifting angles of vision in stark dances that suggested a kind of celestial geometry. Dean was more interested in impetus and the effects of the slightest shift in image, like the downward versus the upward gaze of a dancer on the same move. Neither worked exclusively with Glass and Reich but in those two primary composers each found music, interestingly enough, that played off rather than complemented her major choreographic concerns.



Lucinda Childs

Favored by the cooler Childs, Glass’s early music was inherently if subtly dramatic, in part because it built in what John Rockwell has called a linear additive technique. The slightly more dramatic Dean favored Reich, whose earliest music Rockwell describes as a more cerebral matter of shimmering textures, phase shifts, and cyclically revolving motives. Adams, Rockwell adds, took his cue from Glass and moved on to a distinctive dramatic logic in his music.

A turning point in the development of Minimalist-style dance and music occurred in 1976 with the collaboration of Childs and Glass on the Robert Wilson opera Einstein on the Beach. Glass began to refer to himself increasingly as a composer with extensive background in theater. Childs, whose dances had been created for the most part for non-traditional theater spaces like studios and the street, became interested in creating for the proscenium stage.

In her 1979 Dance, a collaboration with Glass, Childs incorporated images of herself filmed by the painter Sol LeWitt and projected on a downstage scrim, creating dramatic tension through complex physical and temporal layering. Four years later, she worked with the architect Frank Gehry on Available Light, set to music by Adams, which placed dancers on two levels in space in an exploration of asymmetry and musical mood changes. Childs went on to create dances for opera, which she also directed, and for European and American ballet troupes, in addition to work for her own company. Dean choreographed dances for the Joffrey Ballet and other classical groups and for several ice-skating companies. Theatricality reared its unruly head. In both dance and music of the time, there was a newly lush quality to the old austerity.

More and more choreographers turned to the music of Glass, Reich, and their heirs, beginning in the late 1970s and continuing into the 21st century, in a wide variety of approaches. At first, the response was often the fairly literal “trance” pieces of modern-dance choreographers including Molissa Fenley and Lar Lubovitch. Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker injected a typical inherent drama into her spare Fase, a 1982 piece set to music by Reich.

Robbins’s 1983 Glass Pieces was a large-scale response to scores by Glass that Robbins first analyzed clinically by charting their structures on graph paper. The result was a surprisingly tender, gleaming jewel of a ballet for 43 dancers that aimed for abstraction but suggested the anonymous onrush of urban life to some viewers. Many of Feld’s pieces to scores by Reich were performed in athletic shoes on top of and along inclined structures that to some extent restricted the dancers’ movement, comparable to the formal restraint of the music.

Feld was initially repelled by the music, and listened to it only to try to understand it. “I find Reich’s music ecstatic,” Feld said in 1987. “Because of the obscuring of the downbeat, it starts to shimmer, to defy gravity in some way.”

It would not be surprising if the highly structured music of Minimalist-school composers like Reich and Glass has helped to give choreographers a paradoxical feeling of freedom from the very human pull of the earth, of gravity, of weight. Certainly Childs and Dean moved about as far as imaginable from the earth-wrenched aesthetic of Martha Graham and other pioneering American modern-dance choreographers of the 1930s and ’40s. And the no-fat, no-frills music made no unwelcome decorative or emotional demands on the sleek and speedy dance of the late 20th century.

Most of all, however, the Glass-Childs and Reich-Dean collaborations suggested a new way of looking at dance and music. Dance could now be seen as a physicalization of music. Repeated critical descriptions of Minimalist music and dance as “motoric” are no coincidence. Sound effectively becomes three-dimensional when it propels a body into motion. What Balanchine needed from him, Stravinsky once said of Balanchine’s “Movements for Piano and Orchestra,” was “not a pas de deux but a motor impulse.” The perpetual, cyclic progress of music by Glass, Reich, and their heirs encourages perpetual motion.

From A Feat Beyond Certainty: A HyperHistory of American Composer-Choreographer Relationships
By Jennifer Dunning
© 2002 NewMusicBox

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