Available Light review – a masterclass in movement

Palace theatre, Manchester
Lucinda Childs’s collaboration with Frank Gehry and John Adams remains illuminating 35 years on

Available Light was created in 1983 as a collaboration between choreographer Lucinda Childs, composer John Adams, and architect Frank Gehry, who designed the set. The piece was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and evolved over the course of two and a half years. None of the collaborators knew each other beforehand, but the creative process was reportedly a happy one. In 2015, 32 years after its premiere, the piece was revived, having been reworked by its creators, and it is this version that played last week as part of the Manchester international festival.

A bare downstage area and an elevated platform with a chain-link backdrop make up Gehry’s starkly industrial set, and as the lights come up the 12 dancers march like gladiators from beneath the platform to Adams’s reverberant chords. Childs’s process involves taking a simple but expressive sequence and expanding it into multiple versions. Phrases of movement are parsed, mirrored, reversed, refracted and reduced to their prime elements.

In this reworking of steps Childs shows us their many facets, and their essence. The precise way a coupé – a shift of weight from foot to foot – punctuates a choreographic sentence like a comma, arresting the flow for a moment before dispatching the dancer in a new direction. The way that the same step can be imbued with grace, as each indrawn leg displaces and lifts the other to the side, making a movement like the swinging of a bell. She presents us with beautiful contrasts. Interiority and exteriority, straight line and curve.

Childs applies weight and tension to her phrases, so that each springs easily to the next, with the precision and calculation of a poet. At mo ments, the choreography’s fractured geometry takes on a dazzlingly complex, hall-of-mirrors quality. As multiple iterations of the same phrase play out, it’s as if all the crystals in a chandelier have been set jangling, throwing light in all directions.

Adams’s score is magisterial, with layers of brass and synthesiser giving an impression of echoing vastness. At moments, Childs allows the dance to be carried on its waves, at others she cuts against the score, so that it breaks over the dancers as they proceed.

Watch a trailer for Available Light

At the same time we never lose the human scale. These are people, dancing. They’re athletic, and they’re in command of the material, but they’re constructed like civilians. They don’t have the preternatural appearance of ballet dancers. There are no how-do-they-do-that moments. On the contrary, Childs goes to extraordinary lengths to show us exactly how the dancers do what they do, turning the steps inside-out and back-to-front for our inspection.

Two things jar. The black, white and red costumes (by Kasia Walicka-Maimone) are overfussy and hang limply and uninterestingly, doing little for the dancers’ line. And if you’re sitting in the stalls, you can’t see the feet of the dancers on the platform. These reservations apart, wonderful.


Luke Jennings

The GuardianTramp

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