The production of Available Light performed at Zellerbach Hall this past weekend is a revival of the 1983 production, part of a series of performances pairing California–based artists with architects in Los Angeles. Two abandoned warehouses in downtown Los Angeles were designated the Temporary Contemporary, until the city completed its Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). The project tapped architect Frank Gehry, choreographer Lucinda Childs and composer John Adams as collaborators.

© JJ Tiziou
© JJ Tiziou

Space determined all. The warehouse had 40-foot ceilings with skylights that created spots of light for use in the performance, hence the name, Available Light. Space is also central in the revival, which throughout the year will occur in Paris, Hamburg, Philadelphia, Berlin and Athens. The revival opened in Los Angeles. The performance space, however, has gone theatrical.

At Zellerbach the stage is opened up: wings are gone, revealing the rigging and lights around the walls backstage, and the flies vanished, baring the lighting grid above. A second stage, about 12 feet above the regular stage, is erected at the back. Scaffolding-like boxes stand beneath that stage, forming geometrical cages through which dancers stand and walk. Lit from behind both create a pattern of black grids and organic silhouettes. At the back of the stage long strips of chain link hang in a curtain. It’s all very Frank Gehry, minimalist, pared back to its structural and industrial essence.

John Adams composed Light Over Water for the collaboration. And in sync with the architect’s stage, it is minimalist and composed on the most basic and humble of electronic equipment, a Cassio keyboard the composer picked up at Macy’s. The music, comprised of harmonic sound washes, represents the winter sky and sea of coastal California. The sound has movement, but lacks a beat. At Child’s request Adams added a pulse here and there throughout.

Eleven dancers comprise the Lucinda Childs Dance Company. Many have danced with Childs for the past eight years, and in the 2012 revival of the Childs–Philip Glass 1976 production of Einstein on the Beach.  

© Craig T Matthew
© Craig T Matthew

Minimalist and formal, Childs’ choreography for Available Light uses ballet vocabulary but within the mindset of modern dance. While ballet dancers try to escape the bounds of gravity through height and speed, modern dancers cling like Antaeus to Mother Earth, renewing their strength from contact to the ground. Childs uses extensions, turns, jetés, but all of them are grounded. Extensions are low, never exceeding 45-degrees, jetés are also low, emphasizing quick travel rather than height. The dancers’ torsos remain upright, their legs and feet more than their arms are the conveyors of motion. Simply standing quietly becomes a step, a moment of stillness and enhanced awareness before propulsion into a repeating combination.

Repetition is central to the formal elegance.

Eight dancers move in three rows on the lower stage, all in short skivvy-like costumes, four in black, four in red. On the raised stage are two dancers in white. A third dancer in white joins them in the second half.

Throughout Available Light, the dancers break into smaller groups to dance short combinations in sync. The combinations of steps never move the dancers far from their initial positions on stage, they always return more or less to where they were, though the lines become staggered through repetition. Now and then someone swaps positions with someone else.

The dancers maintain a consistent pace throughout the piece, accelerating gradually at the end. This is necessary, given the lack of markers within the music. A mutual pace becomes one of the intuitive links between the dancers, enabling them to synchronize their phrases and combinations.

One of the demands of the choreography, and believe me this is mind-bogglingly demanding, is that the dancers remain constantly aware of each other. One nanosecond of inattention, one misstep and the allure of formal precision, which is at the center of the piece, is disrupted and gone awry. Such sustained focus is also tiring, and that was in evidence at the end of the piece, when moments of subtle slurring appeared among the dancers. My hat’s off to these dedicated dancers.

In the post-performance talk, collaborators Childs and Adams came back to the concept of beauty that Artistic Director Matias Tarnopolsky brought up in his introduction. For Childs, beauty lay in that very intense connection between the dancers, in the “network of rhythmic timing”. For Adams, the strength of the piece lay in the “exquisite beauty of human body”, in “the rushes of identity” like those found in nature, for example in the flight of a flock of geese.