In a 1986 interview, Jerome Robbins attempted to define choreography by saying that it was concerned with not only the way dancers move, “but the way they move in space— because that’s what ballets are about, which is that volume of space which is the stage. And the drama is how they move in it and around it, or separate from each other, or more come in, or are more on one side of the stage, move forward or backward. Unfortunately we can’t use as high as we would like, but we try.”
By the time he said that, there had actually been a modern-dance experiment which tried and even succeeded in using “high” as well. Available Light, choreographed by Lucinda Childs to music by John Adams on a set by Frank Gehry, seemed exactly created to fulfill every aspect of Robbins’s definition. It was, essentially, about how bodies move in space and in relation to each other; and it was performed on a two-story set, with one or two figures often appearing on a level above the rest, echoing and at times leading the group’s gestures. Acclaimed at its initial performances—first in early 1983 at the Temporary Contemporary in Los Angeles, and then later that same year at Brooklyn’s BAM—the dance has hardly been seen in the decades since.
Fortunately for those of us who missed its initial incarnation, this collaborative achievement has now been revived, and last night it was performed to an extraordinarily appreciative Berkeley audience, courtesy of Cal Performances. Available Light is a highly mathematical work, which fits the aesthetic of both the steel-based construction-materials set and the synthesizer-plus-brass music. Ten dancers dressed in minimal costumes—four red, four black, two white—perform a series of steps in canon and segmented unison, facing diagonally in the same direction or straight forward or straight backward, but always aligned with the dimensions of the set. Three of these dancers are male and seven female, but the steps assigned to them do not vary by gender at all; the men could all be replaced by women, or vice versa, and the dance would feel the same. The colors matter, though: there are times when all four reds or both whites are doing the same thing at once, and other times when one of each color dances in unison with the other two, followed by the next red-black-white trio doing the same thing, and so on. Meanwhile the music pounds (or at time whispers) forward, and the steps relentlessly mirror its beat, sometimes even when the beat is absent. If this sounds boring, I have misconveyed it: there is something actively soothing in the ongoing repetitiveness of the movement, and at the same time something fascinating in the precise and highly organized variations.
Three moments in the hour-long performance stood out for me in particular. The first was when the John Adams music, after a brief silence, resumed with a honking beat that occurred at regular intervals. The dancers, who had been still, started to dance about two or three measures in—but the beat that they were keeping started with the off-beat (the silence between the honks) rather than with the honk itself. This was soon remedied and explained, because the music then developed a secondary, softer note that occurred between each honk, rendering the dance steps both prophetic and perfectly timed.
A second brilliant choreographic move entailed the introduction of an eleventh dancer—a man dressed in white—for certain sequences in the second part of the dance. He came seemingly out of nowhere and disappeared the same way, if you were not focused on his presence; but his inclusion altered all the arithmetical structures, so that if a black and a red person were placed on the second-story, for instance, that left exactly three trios garbed in the three different colors down below. Two and nine give altogether different possibilities from two and eight, and the choreographer made full use of them before banishing her extra man to the wings, only to call him back again for the dance’s conclusion.
The third moment was not, precisely, due to either the choreography or the music or the set, but to some combination of the three, enhanced by the remarkable lighting (credited to Beverly Emmons and John Torres). At a certain point in the seemingly measureless performance, the music fell completely silent, all the dancers disappeared from the stage, and the lights died down to a mere back-lighting of the lower part of the set. A normally oblivious dance or concert audience would have burst into automatic applause at this break, but in this case the Cal Performances crowd was so gripped, or obedient, or in some other way held that it maintained perfect silence for over a minute, waiting to see if this was indeed the end. That it was not the end only became clear when the music softly started up again and the dancers one by one appeared onstage—but it proved we had been right to wait so long, and the silence itself was memorable.
My one complaint about this excellent piece is that the dance alone, which uses an extremely restrictive movement vocabulary and never allows the dancers to touch one another, suffers from a lack of emotional content. But the dance does not have to stand alone here: it is supported by and enriched by the music, which does have an emotional content. The music moves toward something, and in doing so moves us—and it is also what moves the dancers, who have collectively and individually taken this music into their body (as John Adams so eloquently put it in his remarks afterward), thus making it into something it could never have been without them.