Saturday, June 6, 2015

Douglas Messserli | "Unaltered Images of Movement" (on John Adams, Lucinda Childs and Frank O. Gehry's Available Light)

unaltered images of movement

 by Douglas Messerli

John Adams (music), Lucinda Childs (choreography), and Frank O. Gehry (stage design) Available Light / Los Angeles, Walt Disney Concert Hall, June 6, 2015  

Although often referred to as a “performance art work,” and despite the collaborative contributions of composer John Adams, architect and, here designer, Frank Gehry, Available Light is very much a modern balletic piece in which choreographer Lucinda Childs plays the major role. That this work from 1983 was first performed in the museum space of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Arts “Temporary Contemporary” venue, and was curated by art curator Julie Lazar, may have made this dance seem to be something other than is, leading some art critics such as Los Angeles Times’ William Wilson to dismiss it and others to praise it as an avant-garde, cutting edge piece. But as its revival at the Walt Disney Concert Hall last evening confirmed, it is a beautifully conceived work of contemporary dance that is different from others, perhaps, only through its venues: besides MOCA and the Concert Hall, the work was also revived at Mass MoCA and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, all rather untraditional locations for works dedicated to movement.
       To say that this work primarily functions in the dance world, however, does not take anything away from the lush musical circlings of Adams’ score nor detract from the breathtaking two-tiered platforms that Gehry has created for the dancers to perform on, the top layer held up plinths of a kind of delicately laced chain-link fence-like construction that reminded us, of course, of the architect’s early constructions. While the original MOCA audience sat on two sides of the platforms, experiencing it, accordingly, from completely different vantage points, most of the Concert Hall audience members were able to observe the patterned movements of the two layers of dancers from a shared perspective. My only presumption is that, as Deborah Meadows and I were seated on the fourth-floor level, the action of the dancers came into sharper focus, revealing the fact that the ten dancers on the lower level, moving in pairs of twos and threes in repeated spins (generally one and a half turns), skips, and leaps were determined by similar movements along a lateral bias by the two dancers above—although those patterns alternated later in the performance. In short, like two waves of movement, it appeared that the dancers of the top platform determined, for the most part, the larger image of dancers in a group on the lower level.

      While these series of “patterns and permutations, repetitions and variations,” as dance critic Anna Kisselgoff suggested in her 1983 review of the Brooklyn performance, are all signatures of Child’s minimalist esthetic, we might almost read this two-layered patterning in a different manner, particularly if we explore the metaphoric associations of the work’s title, perceiving the “available light” as having to do with photographing or imaging a reality without artificial light sources, and imagining the two layers of movement to reflect actions of two hands (the two top-positioned dancers) moving through water and chemicals to the resultant image (the ballet corps below).

     Such a reading is surely encouraged by the fact that the dancers are all dressed by costumer Kasia Ealicka Maimone in the three colors of the photographic studio, white, black and red, and that, from time to time, light designer Beverly Emmons dims her normally bright white lights into near darkness and briefly introduces red tones. And while we feel some guilt, perhaps, for reading Child’s obviously abstract movements in this more literal manner, it appears to give significant structure and depth to the whole, particularly if we believe, as Kisselgoff argued, that “the piece is not simply [an] exercise in perception, [but]… an aid to perception.” For in this work of wide-eyed availability, the observer can readily see how each movement gives direct rise to others, and transforms simple elements into waves of wider motion and expression.
      However one might “read” her dance, however, with Adams’ joyous music and Gehry’s simple but elegant designs, Childs has created in Available Light something truly profound. And the Los Angeles Philharmonic should be commended for returning this excellent work to the city of its birth. I feel fortunate to have been part of the audience rediscovering this work of art.


Los Angeles, June 6, 2015

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