The most marvelous revelations of the Museum of Modern Art’s “Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done” have come in the shape of live performances of works from 1961 to 1978. But the pleasure has been double-edged; an era is ending.
Trisha Brown, one of the choreographers honored in this series, died last year. And this week’s performances by Lucinda Childs Dance (running through Sunday) will be that company’s final appearances. The dancers may still perform Ms. Childs’s work, and she may still make new work for them or others, but this is the last hurrah for this ensemble. I’m sad — but glad that I found myself succumbing to her choreography as never before.
The audience sits on three sides of the square performing space in MoMA’s atrium. The geometries of Ms. Childs’s style would seem to encourage distance, but, to my surprise, proximity enhanced appreciation. Although she has become known for her collaborations with minimalist composers like Philip Glass and John Adams, six of the seven early works on this program are performed in silence: They are their own music.
Ms. Childs became a member of the Judson Dance Theater in 1963. The dances presented here date from 1963 to 1978. (One was rearranged as a quartet in 2013.) The oldest work, “Pastime” (1963), which opens this program and is accompanied by a Philip Corner score, immediately shows her arresting and peculiar individuality. Three women are positioned across the stage in an unchanging diagonal: They might belong to three different species — or three different kinds of moving sculpture. Each stays rooted to her spot, dancing without traveling.
One (Caitlin Scranton) stands upright, obdurate, rhythmically swinging a leg and even hopping while maintaining a handsome, often two-dimensional, upper-body tension. The second (Shakirah Stewart), her torso and outstretched legs encased in a jersey tube from which only her head emerges, stays seated: She looks like her own canoe. The third (Katie Dorn) spends the dance largely upended, balanced on one straight leg but with her torso plunged as if she were a flamingo. It’s an odd vision, but forceful. All three show striking technical rigor.
Ms. Childs, 78 and in exceptional shape (erect, coolly composed), dances one solo, “Particular Reel” (1973), herself. Here, she crisscrosses the space, walking in a steady zigzag from one corner to another, embellishing each line of her path with slow turns, powerfully outstretched gestures and telling, momentary pauses. Her whole manner is austere: Touchingly tentative transitional moments are followed by others of complete authority as her eyes, hands and arms arrive perfectly in a completed forward gesture into the beyond.
Spatial geometry is one of Ms. Childs’s enduring themes. Another is meter: You’re intensely aware of individual feet, as in verse, and of their rhythmic play in far larger units. The two coincide in her 1970s work to build a genre of startling and uncompromising minimalism. You see why she would become a like-minded choreographer — in scansion, structure and thought — for Mr. Glass. It’s seldom possible to discern the start or end of any phrase. Each dance’s current is nonstop (the pauses in her own “Particular Reel” are somewhat illusory, caesuras rather than halts), while its sense of process is constant.
Each Childs composition establishes its own flight paths. The three men of “Reclining Rondo” (1975) don’t travel at all, or even stand: In one vertical line, they lie, sit, reposition themselves, in a steady rhythm. It’s fun to note how a position that looks fetal or sleeplike is followed by one of exertion or Sphinx-like fixity, but this “Rondo” is too schematic to feel like much more than a scientific experiment.
The manner is entirely objective, but the steps take on their own affective qualities. Those turning leaps catch your breath; some of the rapid smaller walks touch on comedy.
The program builds to the bafflingly intricate patterning and scansion of the light-footed dance quintet “Interior Drama” (1977). Five women, their insteps lively and their legs often straight, begin by advancing in a wedge shape, but the parallel vertical paths they take soon become interwoven with retreats, turns, arcs — and with metrical variations, too. Ms. Childs, known as a seminal figure of dance postmodernism, is here a child of the Renaissance.