Beverly Emmons Revisits Dance

A seminal piece of minimalist choreography, Lucinda Childs’ Dance resurfaced in 2009 for a 30th anniversary revival. Originally performed in 1979, most notably at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a series that spawned the Next Wave Festival a few years later, Dance propelled Childs onto the dance scene in a major way, and as was typical of many collaborations of that era, she had famous partners: visual artist Sol LeWitt and composer Philip Glass, who wrote a joyous, original score for the piece. Last year, Childs revived the work first at Bard College in upstate New York, then at The Joyce Theatre in New York City (a tour is planned for summer/fall 2010).

The clean lines of the dancers on stage are echoed in black and white films made by LeWitt, which feature the original cast from 1979, including Childs herself. These films are projected on a white scrim that fills the proscenium, and the audience sees the live dancers through the scrim. In the 2009 remake, younger versions of the dancers perform in unison with their antecedents, who are caught forever in the mesmerizing images of Childs’ repetitive, yet wonderfully satisfying, movement.

Lighting designer Beverly Emmons, who lit Dance in 1979, returned to light the revival as well: “Originally there were five sections to the piece, three of which had the film, which came and went. This time they are only performing the three sections with the film, which intensifies the overall experience,” she says.

The big challenge for Emmons in lighting this piece is “keeping all stray rays of light off the scrim.” That means she used primarily sidelight, with a bit of back light as needed. At Bard, she had the luxury of new ETC Source Fours and a student crew to clean the lenses. She also notes that the experience of rehearsal and tech at Bard was very good: “The crew there is great and it’s a nice theatre. We had a lot of time to tech what is really a simple piece and continue to make it better.”

To limit any light spill from the sides of the Source Fours, Emmons finally used black-wrap protection. “This is a special case with a white scrim hanging in the proscenium. The light has to be completely masked to avoid hitting the scrim,” she adds. “In 1979 there were also three painted backdrops by Sol LeWitt, a red one, a blue one, and a gold one, but those are long gone. I called Lucinda and asked her if I could add the blue and gold colors to the light. And for Lucinda’s solo section, which never had a backdrop, we agreed to add the red.”

Emmons also found that her old cue sheets no longer existed either. “So the question was how to cue this? There are no emotional scene shifts and no old-fashioned way to figure out where to put cues. So I decided to explore some arbitrary ideas to see what would work,” she notes. “The first scene has black and white images of the dancers the full height of the proscenium, then you see the live dancers behind the film.” Using scrollers—Wybron Colorams with blue R80, red L019, gold L768, and clear—Emmons found an organic way to add cues: “I added blue light, then the black and white film, then blue and the film simultaneously, then the dancers in white light that matches the color temperature of the film. At Bard, we had the sidelights at full since the lenses were so clean, and the booms were 10’ deep in the wings. At The Joyce we couldn’t do that.”

In the solo section, the dancer suddenly appears on stage from the upstage blacks and is lit with white sidelight. “She appears and reappears in a red sheen, which now characterizes that section,” says Emmons. In the final section of the three, the gold tone builds slowly to full, then goes to white and gold. “I found the right places to add the cues by bringing the other color back for three seconds as they repeat the same dance phrase many times: leap: all red; leap: all blue; leap: all gold.”

Emmons and Childs had both gone to Sarah Lawrence and worked together for Einstein On The Beach as well as Dance: “It was great to see her again as her career has been primarily in Europe,” says the lighting designer. The challenge in this piece remains the scrim, but Emmons elegantly solved that by using high sidelight on the first electric as well as low sidelight in the wings, and some dark blue back light. “The technical problem was keeping light off the scrim,” she says. “The aesthetic question was where and why to add the cues. I subtly added cues in each section to make a color statement. It was somewhat arbitrary but finally strong once I solved the question of how to bring in the color notes as effectively as possible.”

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