Summer is, notoriously, the season of festivals – and here the mind goes to tents, mud and music. Yet it should also tend to dance festivals. Once considered a period of rest, as many theatres close, one could now hop his or her way across Europe following a trail of big and small dance events. Berlin, for example, will, for the next three weeks, host the 27th edition of its international 'Tanz im August' festival. The extremely varied programme offers premières, reconstructions and one retrospective by well-known as well as upcoming local and international artists. And what better start to the festival than the full house for the opening show Available Light by John Adams, Lucinda Childs and Frank O. Gehry.

Available Light (1983) © Tom Vinetz
Available Light (1983)
© Tom Vinetz

The foyer was full of excited dance lovers, researchers, architects and designers and experimental music fans. This variety is hardly a surprise considering the multi-awarded caliber of the collaborators: the lucidly minimalist movement complexity of Childs (Obie Award), the urban and futuristic set design by Gehry (Pritzker Architecture Prize) who divided the stage into two levels and, the mildly alien collage of synthesizer and brass sounds by Adams (Grammy Award). Childs’ works are often collaborative in nature, (Einstein on the Beach (1973) with Philip Glass and Robert Wilson being her other most widely known work).

Originally commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (1983), Available Lights' minimalist aesthetic still captivates today, despite small changes in stage design and costumes. A ballet dancer who was not afraid of crossing over to modern and postmodern dance experimentation, Childs came to the Judson Dance Theatre via Yvonne Rainer – who she encountered at the Cunningham studio. While at Judson, Childs maintained her interest in ballet and her style clearly shows the two currents. This work is an example of Childs' move from conceptualism typical of the Judson milieu to minimalism.

The dance starts with the dancers' backs turned to us, and lit by blue light in a corridor below the upper part of the stage. The scene, also because of the grid surfaces and cages, recalls the musical film aficionados of Rob Marshall’s Chicago (2002). Still, instead of sinuous movements, the dancers reveal something more alien-like by slowly walking rigidly on stage. Adams' music contributes to the effect and reminds me of the soundtrack of Ridley Scott’s film. Perfect strangers in white, red and black costumes with no discernible inner drama, the dancers perform angelical movements in diagonals. Like a mechanical clock, they permute a fixed number of steps sequences. Echoes of movement, like waves, traverse the two levels of the stage and create syncopations, as when the ripple touching a stone is bounced back. The couple in white on the upper floor reminded me somehow of George Balanchine’s Apollo, probably also because of the diagonal cut of the costumes. The dance's structure, two parts with several subsections signaled by black outs and shift towards the red of the lights, does not help in solving the riddle of the dance. Rather the red sequences reminded me of the dangers scenes on the Alien spaceship when the only thing alight are the alert signs.

Childs’ interest in mathematics is obvious in the choreography, and intense counterpoint of movement similarities can be seen with Balanchine’s work (of course without the relation to music that is typical of him). Once you think you have understood how the movement crossword is constructed, variations leave you with yet another ‘equation’ as pastime. The patterns that seem at first randomly set all of a sudden become symmetrical; they are cumulative but then later on display relative calm. The dancers, of all body types and with different training background, were well suited for the movement material, a mix of ballet derived steps performed in the typical modern fashion and similar to Cunningham. The transverse exchanges of echoes and contretemps were mostly perfect. The dancers were so synchronised in their execution, despite the lack of clear rhythm in Adams’ music and the divided stage that many in the audience speculated about a secret conductor. The irregular regularity in Childs’ work is pure formal abandon.

Even if we now watch it with different eyes, Available Light is a milestone of the eighties North American dancing scene. There is always a slight apprehension in exposing today's audience to earlier works. I see this as vital as it fosters a better understanding and appreciation of contemporary dance. Transposing this idea to fine arts, it is as if we could only see the newest contemporary artists but could not get hold of images by Raphael or Michelangelo. It is thus sad that this work will not stop by London.

Tanz im August is definitively acquiring the international appeal it longed for and with the increase in funding announced for next year, I can only highly recommend it.