Lyon Opera Ballet Dance Review: A Durational Performance That Explores Space and Time
Lyon Opera Ballet Dance Review October 20, 2023 | New York City Center – New York, NY, USA
Sara Mearns, with her long blonde hair, almost chasséd across my row to locate her balcony seat. And I spotted other dance celebs in the audience before settling in for Lyon Opera Ballet’s premiere of Dance by Lucinda Childs at City Center. First performed back in December 1979 at Brooklyn Academy of Music (B.A.M.), Dance is a multimedia dance triptych that has been highly anticipated in the city this fall.
Although Dance is considered a landmark post-modern ballet, a brilliantly crafted formulaic piece (and I honestly like it a lot), one concern is that Dance only serves the esoteric few and might forever be trapped inside the insular dance bubble. Even with a sophisticated New York audience, Dance is a test of patience.
Lyon Opera Ballet Dance Review
The three-part Dance starts with Sol Lewitt’s superimposed video that projects onto a scenic screen. Music is similarly titled: Dance Nos. 1-5, composed by Philip Glass.
Behind the shadows of the screen, two dancers gingerly glissadetombé across the floor from stage right to the left. As soon as the first two dancers sweep into the wings, a second couple comes on from stage right, performing the exact same choreography across the floor, gliding towards the wings to the left like beams of light. Traveling through space with expansively jovial energies, this pattern repeats for at least eight more times with different duets.
"I needed to see this tonight," I thought to myself. It is so pleasant to see a few locomoting smiles to counterbalance the current world conflicts that are occurring beyond the walls of the iconic theater.
There is richness in this simple opening. Dancers are now reversing the same choreography across the floor from left to right. It feels relaxing to slow down, sit back to absorb the dancers’ choreographic swipes, and turn my attention away from the everyday grind.
Dance feels like an ocean of hope, poised for a breakthrough. It is so satisfying to feel the pure essence of this exemplar multimedia dance, and I am determined to hold on.
The dancers’ clean white attire also helps with pacifying the mind. And the black and white video projection supports the dance like an ideal pas de deux partner. It seems to be there not only there to enhance the dance, but also to give the live dancers some breaks.
A few more allegro steps integrate themselves into the dance seamlessly. The exquisite dancers of the Lyon Opera Ballet step hop developpé, lunge into some jolting fourth positions in croisé, and arabesque temps levé to Glass’ meditative score.
Every foot is pointed in midair, and every port de bras is held with intent.
A soprano’s voice repeats something like
“fa fa fa me me te te– de so de so de so de so– te te te…”
corresponding harmoniously with the dancers’ movements.
A momentary solo happens, but is soon engulfed by a symmetrical quartet. At this point, the entrances and exits of dancers seem more random than structured which prompted me to try to predict their next move.
I wonder: “Where will these elegant accumulations ebb and flow to by the end?”
About twelve-ish minutes into the first part of Dance, it became clear that it is a ballet allegro marathon!
A colleague of Childs’, Merce Cunningham, and his spirit are lingering in the background as well; some aspects reminded me of dancing in his technique classes back in grad school, taught by one of his last muses, Andrea Weber.
No doubt that Childs’ play with space and time is layered with ingenious experimentation. At times, Dance seems to echo a watered down (but more intriguing) version of “Waltz of the Snowflake” from The Nutcracker… as if we are seeing epic snowflakes falling in virtual reality.
What appeals to me is its minimal set up and the plotless meditative quality of pure form.
Childs and her collaborators illustrate how the essence of dance technique alone can speak for itself, without added storylines or emotions. Everything was more avant-garde back in the 1960s and 1970s; yet Dance was definitely appropriate for its time during the earlier days of Downtown Dance with Judson Dance Theatre.
I also enjoy the blending of arts mediums. As I sat for Dance, I kept asking myself “Is it video-art or is it ballet?”, “Am I seeing a chance dance or a performance art piece?”, “Can this enter a dance film competition or become a permanent exhibition at The Whitney, or both?”
Childs’ refreshing concoction of film, music, and pure dance challenges me to surrender into the present moment and let go of any urges to make sense of everything.
After completing about twenty reps of the same allegro combination on the sagittal plane, a new jeté coupé phrase enters the pieces vocabulary.
The film cuts to a bird’s-eye view shot of its dancers, and now we are seeing a floor with a checkered pattern on the screen. Simultaneously, a duet and quartet emerge on stage while the film continues to roll out in its black and white mise-en-scène.
Glass’ instrumentation shifts to sound like a video game. I hear the electric synthesizer clash with some harpsichord acoustics rather than with the soprano. Different art mediums take turns to visit us in the foreground.
And in the midst of the simultaneity of the total theater experience, I start to see doubles as if the dancers are inviting me to count them like sheep.
The dancers on the film, darting around on the checkerboard floor, now start to look like abstract chess pieces. The mid shots and close-ups are zooming in and out, and the movement of the dancers on the film and the live dancers on stage go hand-in-hand, making the aesthetic increasingly enmeshed.
Over and over again, the dancers are jumping innocently around for about nineteen-minutes now, at which point I’m starting to feel more hypnotized. I also notice some dancers’ feet are giving out – little less pointed here and there – and the sweat is seeping through their transparent long sleeves. Surely, some cerebral effort is required to keep up with what’s now unfolding from all directions.
Childs has not used any other choreographic devices in the piece except for repetition. And the dynamic has been steadily flat by design.
A freeze frame appears suddenly on the screen, and Part One abruptly (and at last) ends in a blackout. The crowd cheers on wildly. I thought, “Phew! What a relief.”
Kudos to the dancers for showcasing their stamina in motion for the past twenty minutes.
Part Two starts off with a full blown video projection of an attractive woman wearing the same costume, standing en face emotionlessly while blinking a few times. She almost seems like a character from The Twilight Zone, especially when accompanied by what to me sounds like an electronic organ from outer space.
After a beat, the screen fades to black. A live dancer stands at centerstage, replacing the last image from the film. Turns out it is a solo section… for the next twenty minutes!
The lovely soloist from Lyon Opera, Noëllie Conjeaud, chaînés turns towards and away from the audience on repeat. Not surprisingly, Childs performed the same role in 1979 premiere.
Conjeaud demonstrates other ballet steps throughout the chaînés solo and takes the audience on a swirling pathway around the stage. She comes back to the impetus of where she started moving and continues to repeat herself. This solo is more pedestrian than the previous balletic section; Conjeaud exhibits less effort and is more carefree and more dynamic, as if she were a lost snowflake happy to be left alone.
Conjeaud continues to explore her space and as if she is being partnered by the screen; they work together to sustain the attention of the audience until the end, and noticeably, the crowd claps less enthusiastically this time around.
Another pause happens before the ensemble is back at it.
This is the last part of Dance, but to my surprise, it’s basically the sequel of Part One, repeating all over again: dancers arriving in small groups performing repetitive ballet steps in sync with each other, symmetrical phrases between two or four dancers, the music and the film. All of it. The synergy of the arts mediums with the identical concept, for another twenty minutes.
Only now we have some lighting design changes sprinkled sporadically with some new ballet steps such as the B+. Some popping reds, blues, and yellows flash across the stage which slightly disrupts the patterns.
More and more, I’m sensing Dance is making a point of how redundancy, as well as making incremental changes, can hold an extraordinary amount of power.
Dance is like your 9-5pm job, and the checkerboard looks now like a giant work calendar on the screen, a takeaway message of how mundane the reality can be day in and day out and how sometimes we just need a break from it all.
I started to mark the ballet steps with the dancers at my seat in my head; I want to do more than just sit there and watch a group of ballet dancers on repeat.
I see a male dancer forgetting to add a port de bras with his partner on the opposite side during a temp levé in arabesque, but I doubt if anyone else in the Mezzanine even noticed. A cool-looking figure-8 pattern is formed by the dancing bodies in space and finally some more exciting ballet steps like the emboîtés and fouetté arabesques are incorporated into the lengthy number.
A few more minutes passed by and Dance finally stopped dancing. The person that yawned behind me produced a louder sigh of relief when the theater applauded repeatedly at curtain call.
With all due respect, I’m not discounting the rigor to perform Dance. I’m sure the piece is deceptively hard to execute for the dancers and everyone involved in the work. The precision of staying together and counting of repetitions with so many intricate time signature changes in Glass’ score, the epic allegro that almost never ends, the collaboration between artists. Trust me, I would certainly fear making a mistake or two during Dance if I was part of the cast. Which is why I respect it… a lot!
What I'm afraid of is that people might undermine Dance, like what happens with other abstract works. Like when some people comment “Oh, I can do that. Just splash some paint on canvas!" upon viewing a Jackson Pollock.
So I’m left with several questions after seeing Dance:
Is Dance too sophisticated to be tolerated by most?
Is there such a thing as repetitions overkill in a dance?
And why the pauses? Why not stay true to the endurance the entire hour without the breaks? Wouldn’t it be even punchier as a statement piece?
And most importantly: How can we burst the bubble of esoteric dance so more people can benefit from the art form?
There is a place and audience for art for art’s sake pieces. And I am in full support of that. But I also think choreographers and arts administrators, now more than ever, have a social responsibility to move people in their seats, to use dance to add to the world, especially at popular venues such as City Center.
Dance made me think, but I would hate to see it being misused as a mood enhancer in the background of someone’s apartment or as a video loop that plays itself at a fancy corporate lobby rather than it being fully appreciated and understood by the people who experience it.
Featured Photo for this Lyon Opera Ballet Dance review of company dancers in Lucinda Childs’ work at New York City Center. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.
Mimi Liu is a full-time middle school dance teacher with the New York City Department of Education. She also teaches at The Brooklyn Ballet, as well as on her own YouTube channel Plié For The People. Mimi attended the American Ballet Theatre New York summer intensives three years in a row as a teenager, then graduated from the Boston Conservatory where she obtained her Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.) degree in Dance. After moving to New York City, Mimi earned her M.F.A. in Dance from Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and her M.A. in Dance Education from Hunter College on Full-Tuition Scholarship. Mimi is certified in levels Pre-Primary through Level 3 of the ABT® National Training Curriculum and she is enthused by anything ballet!