SMTD dance student Lynsey Colden
Lucinda Childs - photo by Cameron Wittig

The Essential Dance
Dance Students Performs Seminal Lucinda Childs Work

by Marilou Carlin


In 1979, a seminal 20th century work of art was introduced when Lucinda Childs’s Dance had its debut. Set to the music of Philip Glass, the large-scale work was revolutionary, incorporating film by visual artist Sol LeWitt and featuring repetitive, athletic and exquisitely synchronized movement. Glass, in a 2011 interview, said that he and Childs were “overthrowing the notion of the narrative; the movement itself becomes the content … we got to the essence of the work.” He then quipped that Childs’s choreographic style should be called “essentialism.”


Thirty-three years later, the U-M student dance company performed the opening section of the piece, Dance #1 (without the film footage) as the finale to the 2012 Dancelucent performances at the Power Center. In bringing it to the stage, the company discovered that Dance #1 is a feat of collaboration that leaves all participants, both on stage and in the wings, as exhausted and thrilled as victors in a championship game.


“During the last half of the dance, we would become cheerleaders for the performers letting them know we were going to make it through,” said Isabella Ingels, a junior who acted as an understudy. “When each performance ended,” she added, “a huge sense of relief rushed over everyone.”


Dance #1 became part of the repertoire after it was announced that the celebrated opera Einstein on the Beach—composed and written by Glass in 1976 and choreographed by Childs—would have its first staging in 20 years at UMS in January of 2012. With key members of Childs's company performing or assisting in the opera’s choreography, the opportunity to have them work with the student dancers presented itself. 


Coincidentally, Childs’s dance company had been performing Dance in a rare international tour, where it was reaping rhapsodic reviews. ("Dance is a vision of how we would all move in dance paradise," wrote one reviewer in The New York Times.) Given that momentum, the dance department, led by Chair Angela Kane, was further drawn to the work. Lucinda Childs was invited to be this year’s guest artist and the rights to perform the opening section of the work were acquired.


The process began when Ty Boomershine, dance captain for the Lucinda Childs company, set the dance on the U-M company when he came to Ann Arbor last October. He was accompanied by Katie Dorn, a Childs company dancer, who would be performing in Einstein.


Dance #1 features pairs of dancers quickly traversing the stage, one after another, left to right and right to left, with each phrase building on the one before it. It is a non-stop cardio challenge: for 20 minutes, the dancers are in constant motion, running, jumping and all but flying across the stage. As the music develops, so, too, does the complexity of the choreography. 


While the character of the dance is unique in itself, the way in which the dancers would learn and rehearse it—as set forth by Childs—was unlike anything that the students or their instructors had ever encountered.


“At the audition, we just did a few simple phrases across the floor and it seemed simple enough,” said Sumi Motsumoto, a freshman who also acted as an understudy. “When we actually started rehearsing the piece, though, it became much more complicated.”  

After first teaching the phrases, Boomershine unveiled the blueprint for the entire production: the score. Each pair of dancers was assigned a different score, each in a different color—green, purple, blue or orange. At first glance, they were a puzzle of numbers—some numbers circled and slashed out, some raised to exponents, others with parenthesis around them and “+ 1” written next to them.


“In all honesty, it looked like some of my friends’ calculus homework,” said Ingels. “I couldn’t quite see how a dance could come out of this paper with numbers on it, but while we were setting it, I was constantly amazed at how this page de-coded itself into such a complex and beautiful dance.”


“The score tells the dancers what phrase they’re doing and when,” said Judy Rice, associate professor of dance, artistic director of the Dancelucent concert and rehearsal director for Dance #1. “I was out of town when Ty introduced the score and taught how to count it, so I was terrified when I first looked at it,” she said, laughing. “I’ve been in this business a really long time and I’ve never seen anything like it.”


But, she added, it ultimately made perfect sense.


“Looking at the scores seemed like reading a whole other language,” said Matsumoto. “We all became really familiar with them and could not have done the piece without them.”


However, it soon became clear that Rice would need help overseeing this very complicated and intricate staging. Fortunately, two students who were not dancing the piece, Jillian Hopper (MFA ’12) and Sammi Rosenfeld (BFA ’13), eagerly volunteered to be the assistants. 


“Rehearsal directing is a very important skill to learn as a maturing dancer in the field,” said Hopper. “It trains the eye to look for consistency and continuity of and through the work. I wanted the opportunity to work with Judy Rice, as her eye is precise and I knew I would learn a lot about what to look for in ‘cleaning’ a work, and then how to engage in a dialogue with the dancers to achieve it. This was an opportunity I couldn't miss.”


The assistants proved to be a vital part of the collaboration. What Rice realized, she said, was that her assistants knew the score inside and out. That left her free to have her eyes on the students, so she could correct affectations or incorrect positioning of their bodies or body parts.


Equally critical to the success of the piece were the understudies. Not only would they have to fill in if a dancer had to miss an entire performance, they also had to be ready to step in at a moment’s notice at any point in the performance, and regularly were subbing during rehearsals. Plus, they were essential to keeping track of the scores backstage.


“They were backstage in costume, hair and makeup, ready to go, standing with scores on opposite sides of the stage helping with the dancers,” said Rice. “It was a complete team. The crew that performed would not have been able to do this without the support of the understudies.”


Ingels stated that in most pieces, understudies rarely gain the full confidence that a performer would. Dance #1 was completely different.


“We knew every count of the music and every step as if we were in the first cast,” she said. “There were a lot of injuries, because of how tough the impact of all the jumping was on the dancer’s bodies, so we were constantly prepared to go into the dance. Also, we were a key aspect because we helped the performers keep track of where they were in the scores. We kept count on our fingers for every run, whether it was in rehearsals or performances.”


After weeks of rehearsals at the studio, Katie Dorn returned in January to help move the piece to the stage, a major adjustment as scores now had to be scrutinized in the dim backstage lights and a much larger floor had to be traversed.


“Katie Dorn is one of the most caring people I have ever met,” said Ingels. “She really helped boost everyone’s confidence when we moved into the theatre because she was constantly instilling in the performers how far they had come in our tech week leading up to the performance. She helped bring new energy to the dancers every night.”


Mastering such a meticulous and detailed work was a revelation to all who participated.


“As a technique teacher, I try so hard to get the students to become aware of and reduce affectation,” said Rice. “This work helped them so much; I saw each one of them improve on various idiosyncrasies that they’d been dealing with.”


Hopper noted that the smallest details make the largest difference in dance work, and in Dance #1, “the movement and costumes don't allow the dancers to hide at all.” Working as Rice’s assistant provided her with hands-on directorial practice. “I know I'll have the opportunity to continue using these skills in years to come,” she added.   


Ingels noticed that during the four months she worked on Dance #1, her technique had changed and developed tremendously. “This piece demands a certain poise and carriage of the body and it is now so engrained in me as a dancer,” she said. 


“The movement style is really simple and pure, but the dance score adds a really cerebral level to the piece,” said Motsumoto. “It was an amazing experience.”