You are sitting in silence as a black-and-white freeze-frame of phantom dancers appears on a scrim across the front of the stage, the opening shot of a film by artist Sol LeWitt. Then, like a startling squall, Philip Glass' pulsing music jolts you into vigilance and live dancers leap from the wings, turning, tilting their upper bodies sideways, arms outstretched.
The burst of flutes, voice, keyboard, and piccolo gathers turbulently as the dancers bubble across the stage in overlapping torrents - eight, but there seem to be twice as many exiting and entering, over and over, on a grid on the stage floor. The images on the scrim reanimate, oscillating, expanding the effect of a host of dancers.
You are engulfed in Dance, choreographer Lucinda Childs' germinal 1979 work, a highlight of this year's Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe.
Three decades ago, this multimedia collaboration by three artistic giants so outraged some audience members in Minneapolis that they booed and walked out. Today, Minneapolis has a highly regarded dance scene, and Dance is an iconic representation of minimalism, the 20th-century innovation we finally have embraced.
To celebrate its 30th anniversary last year, Bard College produced a revival of the work - with the 1979 dancers, including Childs, projected on the scrim in LeWitt's film, and a new cast performing the same steps on stage. It has been touring the country ever since and will receive its Philadelphia premiere Friday through Sunday at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater.
Born in New York in 1940 and educated at Sarah Lawrence, Childs studied with Merce Cunningham and was one of the nation's original postmodernist choreographers. In 1963, Yvonne Rainer invited her to join Judson Dance Theater, the little movement that made such huge changes in how we view dance, introducing, along with others, repetition, patterning, neutrality, and other elements that continue to influence contemporary dance.
With Judson, Childs began to produce dances that were - are - austere, mathematical, swift, challenging for any dancer to master, and unequivocally elegant. Before Dance, she worked with Glass and Robert Wilson on their landmark 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach (originally as an actor; her choreography was not included until the 1984 revival), and has since worked on other projects with each. In their time, no works were more groundbreaking across disciplines than Einstein and Dance.
In May, during a visit to Philadelphia in which she gave a tentative little dance to conclude Susan Hess Studio's last concert in its longtime Sansom Street home, Childs belied her reputation as an ice queen. Her beauty as aristocratically enduring as Katharine Hepburn's, she chatted shyly but warmly about her Philadelphia show.
She works frequently in Europe, most notably with the Paris Opera Ballet and Ballet du Rhin in Strasbourg, but calls Martha's Vineyard home. From there she recently spoke further about the project.
"When Bard expressed interest in reviving the work, I agreed," she said, "provided they would transfer the original 35mm film to digital, to preserve it and to make the best-quality optical and sound we could."
Glass originally wrote five movements for Childs to choreograph. "This was very much designed to work with and be inspired by the music," she said.
But the piece was about 180 minutes, and they could afford film for only three movements. "So for the revival we pared it down to the three with Sol's film, and now it's about an hour in length," including a long central solo for Childs, projected on the scrim, and her new onstage doppelgänger, Caitlin Scranton.
Childs was drawn to using other media and technologies long before the late 1970s.
"In the '60s, when Judson performed in the Armory in New York," she said, "we worked in collaboration with engineers from Bell Laboratories. They were wonderful. None of us had the physical equipment, much less the know-how to use it . . . so it was all new and experimental to us."
In the touring re-creation, dancers trained in multiple disciplines perform a work of unrelenting intensity that started with a concept involving only five steps, the dynamics of which Childs modified at almost every beat.
"Yes, there are only five actual steps," she confirmed, "except for the solo, which has four steps, each with many variations."
Not trusting my memory of the original at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I went in June to New Haven, Conn., to see the current version of Dance at Yale University's International Festival of Arts and Ideas. Next weekend, it will be seen in the beautifully designed Perelman, which has an advantage over Yale's older hall: With less balcony overhang, audience members will be able to see LeWitt's ceiling-height projection of Childs' 23-minute solo in its entirety from anywhere in the house.
Scranton dances it as no less a tour de force than Childs did three decades ago. Glass' paradoxically joyful and melancholy Dance No. 4 opens it with a deep chord, then begins to dissolve imperceptibly over time before changing to the final section, which brings the other dancers back, bathed in sunrise gold.
The overlay of LeWitt's film of the original dancers allows you to see differences between then and today. Some of the current dancers have ballet training, and it shows in their extensions. This time around, they wear soft jazz shoes rather than sneakers, giving a more pronounced toe point.
"They are modern dancers and very versatile. A few do pointe work, but there is a difference between the dancers of today and 30 years ago," Childs said.
She culled the current group from 200 in auditions. "I founded my company in 1973 [and disbanded it in 1995], but I don't call this a dance company. We are all working on different projects. I'm hoping to develop new work with this group, and reviving other work mostly for them."
For their presence here next weekend, she credited Bill Bissell, director of Dance Advance, which underwrote the Live Arts production, saying he "saw the workshop at Sarah Lawrence and very much wanted to bring it to Philadelphia."
"A year ago I would never have imagined we'd be touring this into the spring of 2011," she mused, "but here we are."