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April 13, 2009
Dance Review | 'Lucinda Childs'

Distilling Four Decades of Dance

By ROSLYN SULCAS

Before Patrick Bensard’s 2006 documentary, “Lucinda Childs,” about the postmodern choreographer, had a Thursday screening at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, Mr. Bensard, Ms. Childs and Mikhail Baryshnikov appeared. Ms. Childs was, characteristically, to the point. “Patrick Bensard attempted to put 40 years into 52 minutes, for which I am grateful,” she said.

Mr. Bensard, director of the Cinémathèque de la Danse in Paris, is one of Ms. Childs’s many admirers on the European dance scene, where she (like Trisha Brown) has enjoyed a level of financial support and a consistent admiration, almost veneration, quite different from her standing in the United States.

Here Ms. Childs is certainly regarded as an important figure, a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater whose works went on to carve out a particular niche of elegantly minimal severity. In France she has been seen by a generation of influential taste makers as one of the indisputably major talents of contemporary dance.

This tone is very evident in “Lucinda Childs,” which opens with a lingering shot of Ms. Childs in profile. As the director Robert Wilson later points out in the film, the camera loves Ms. Childs, whose extraordinary classical beauty (she looks like Catherine Deneuve crossed with Katharine Hepburn) is no less striking now, at the age of 68, than it is in the plentiful footage of her younger days.

Mr. Bensard and his camera can’t resist it. There are many misty vistas of her walking along the beach on Martha’s Vineyard, where she lives, and frequent lengthy close-ups as she speaks about her career or rehearses dancers. (There is amusing footage of her working with Mr. Baryshnikov, who offers lots of opinions about phrasing. “O.K.,” she says equably.)

The sense that Mr. Bensard is intrigued by the personage of Ms. Childs rather than by her choreography subtly infuses the film, although he does a good job of cramming in the outlines of her career. Her training at Sarah Lawrence College, the impact of Merce Cunningham, the early Judson years, her first work with Mr. Wilson (“Einstein on the Beach” in 1976) and her early pieces for her own dancers are all covered. There is the requisite archival footage and the pertinent commentary from colleagues (Yvonne Rainer, Mr. Wilson, Philip Glass) and critical thinkers (Anna Kisselgoff, Annette Michelson, Susan Sontag).

Mr. Bensard is necessarily selective (we hear nothing about the formation or dissolution of Ms. Childs’s company and little about her later career), and the narrative voice-over is sometimes overly general. (Ms. Childs’s 1978 solo “Katema,” we are told, was “a turning point in the history of contemporary dance.”)

But if Mr. Bensard’s reverential approach can feel a little cloying at times, Ms. Childs is never that. Restrained and thoughtful, shy yet uninhibited, she remains essentially enigmatic despite offering her thoughts and memories with apparent frankness. After the screening Mr. Bensard said he hoped to make a sequel. It’s easy to see why.