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'Available Light' Returns to the Stage After Three Decades

"Available Light" dress rehearsal. | Photo: Grant Mudford.
"Available Light" dress rehearsal. | Photo: Grant Mudford.

As a founding curator of The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, I commissioned "Available Light" in 1983 during a period when MOCA's permanent building was under construction and working in interim locations. Lucinda Childs was invited to create a site-specific artwork with maverick Los Angeles-based architect Frank Gehry who was known then for his sculptural approach to buildings and use of modest materials. The adventurous San Francisco-based composer John Adams joined the collaboration to create 53 minutes of music that he called "Light Over Water."

While working on "Available Light," Gehry was engaged to renovate MOCA's transitional galleries; two city-owned warehouses dubbed the Temporary Contemporary. The oddly angled buildings inspired Gehry's design, so he incorporated their features into his overall scheme. A proscenium version was completed afterward by Frank Gehry for the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Opera House as part of its Next Wave Festival.

"Available Light" inaugurated MOCA's public programs bringing together leading contemporary artists at a pivotal moment in their careers. In addition to Adams, Childs, Gehry, costume designer Ronaldus Shamask and lighting designer Beverly Emmons, Los Angeles photographers Grant Mudford and Garry Winogrand documented the piece, with Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Ingram Marshal and Susan Sontag providing texts about the set, music and dance for the accompanying catalog.

In 2003, when Frank Gehry's brilliantly designed Walt Disney Concert Hall opened, the first commissioned composition presented was John Adams' "The Dharma at Big Sur." The music of Adams has marked the completion and opening of two very different Gehry designed arts institutions.

And now, in honor of the Music Center's 50th anniversary, "Available Light" is being transformed once more from its Central Avenue origins 32 years ago into a newly envisioned artwork realized and presented on Grand Avenue on June 5th and 6th by The Los Angeles Philharmonic and Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at The Music Center in association with Pomegranate Arts and a cohort of new producers and co-commissioners.

Artbound offers my original catalog essay, "Setting Sound Sights: Interactive Improvisation" followed by a compilation of excerpts from my 1983 interviews with John Adams, Lucinda Childs and Frank Gehry as background to the re-envisioned production of "Available Light" at Walt Disney Concert Hall, opening June 5. These texts are illustrated with a selection of original black and white documentary photographs taken by Grant Mudford and the late Garry Winogrand, as well as archival footage by Anna Marie Piersimoni of rehearsals and an interview with Childs.


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Setting Sound Sights: Interactive Improvisation

Remember hearing music for the first time and having images roll up into your mind? Remember seeing your first dance and getting a sensation that your body wanted to be in motion? Remember seeing a house under construction and trying to envision what it would look like when it was completed? Now, try to imagine an artwork created by three people -- a composer, a choreographer, and an architect -- who were not acquainted before the early stages of "Available Light," a collaborative performance project commissioned by The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. The following pages comment on the growth of "Available Light," its transition from idea to completed artwork, and on its connection to the genesis of the Museum's interim exhibition space, The Temporary Contemporary.

"Available Light" was initially conceived as part of the Stages of Performance program. as the first of a series of works for which the Museum would commission teams of performing artists. architects, and designers to select locations in the community and to develop performances that would enable the audiences to actively confront the implications and interrelationships of the integral components: particular sites, stages, sets, props, music, sounds, costumes, and lighting. The progressive development of each piece would be documented using different mediums. Because the completed projects and documentation would coincide with the development of the Museum, they would also track its evolution.

The building of temporary stages and settings for dance can be traced to fifteenth-century European court entertainments, in which the choreography was focused on the complex patterns of the dancers on the floor, rather than on complex footwork. Nearly four hundred years later, in the 1890s, the development of electricity marked the beginning of a period of phenomenal change in theater lighting. At that time. a young American named Loie Fuller began fostering productions that gave more or less equal play to movement, lighting, color. form, and sound. Fuller's work was overshadowed by the work of her student, Isadora Duncan, and by Serge Diaghilev' s extraordinary commissioned "collaborations" between choreographers, composers, and painters. Further major developments in Western dance were made by the Italian futurists, Oskar Schlemmer of the Bauhaus School, the dadaists, and by Mary Wigman and Martha Graham, the European and American founders of the modern dance movement. Merce Cunningham initiated the contemporary dance movement, which was developed and augmented by the work of early participants in the Judson Dance Theater: Yvonne Rainer, Simone Forti, Steve Paxton, David Gordon, Deborah Hay, Alex Hay, Judy Dunn, Douglas Dunn, Trisha Brown, Robert Morris, Robert Rauschenberg, Lucinda Childs, and others.

Rehearsal shot of "Available Light." | Photo: Grant Mudford.
Rehearsal shot of "Available Light." | Photo: Grant Mudford.

This abbreviated sweep through recent dance history has been made in order to point out some later examples of architects who have contributed to dance. Martha Graham commissioned the architect Frederick Keisler to design "space sets" for a work she performed in 1952. George Balanchine's close friend, Philip Johnson, designed a sculpture to be the centerpiece for a ballet made for the New York City Ballet's 1981 Stravinsky Festival. In 1982, Robert Joffrey invited Laura Dean to choreograph "Fire" for his company; the backdrop was designed by the post-modern architect Michael Graves. In none of these examples, however, did the architect actually work with the choreographer to influence the shape of the dance. The Stages of Performance proposes the development of more direct interaction between the individual artists from each discipline; the goal is to create a performance that enables the audience to see the underlying forms of each individual's work, in the context of a completely integrated artwork.

Many contemporary choreographers utilize pedestrian, anti-illusionistic movements, which audiences find more familiar than classical balletic gestures and poses. They frequently incorporate the performance site -- examining its particular features or adapting its limitations -- into the vocabulary of their dances. Similarly, many contemporary architects "humanize" their buildings by incorporating expressive, eclectic or vernacular features.


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Available Light: Lucinda Childs Interview, Part 1

Lucinda Childs's use of "found" movement -- skips, hops, turns, dips, running, and walking -- led dance critic Sally Banes to observe that Childs's choreography bears an uncanny resemblance to eighteenth century baroque dance. Banes describes Childs's vision of choreography as "more like that of a visual artist than that of a dancer... Childs often operates like a sculptor, rendering her dances into objects that can be turned around, observed from many angles, that demand close scrutiny and seem not only to palpably occupy space in a surprisingly permanent way, but even to rub insistently against one's vision and memory... Childs has structured each work as an exhaustive systematic exploration... Each dance, for the spectator, is a process of noticing, remembering, making contrasts and comparisons, constructing patterns and making sense of their juxtapositions to other, nearly identical patterns."

In June 1981, the Museum invited Lucinda Childs to participate with Frank Gehry and begin working as the first team in the series. At the time, she had not yet become acquainted with his architecture.

While Childs's work is highly structured, and emphasizes the choreographic grid, Gehry' s buildings tend to work away from the grid, jogging the viewer's perception.

 

Gehry considers himself an artist -- he sees his building as sculpture, objects in the landscape responding to their settings in an expressionistic and even intuitive way... He is preoccupied with the placement of architectural volumes in relation to each other and to the immediate environment. He is concerned with the manipulation of "ordinary materials," and with extending our understanding of architectural space. His work remains very modern in its minimal simplicity, and yet it respects few of the dogmas of the Modern Movement.

 

The viewer's attention is drawn to his architecture by the complex juxtapositioning of angles, the unusual relationships of indoor and outdoor spaces in his buildings, and the use of simple materials such as chain-link fencing, corrugated iron, exposed studs, and plywood. Gehry acknowledges that many artists, including Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Mary Miss, Robert Morris, Richard Serra, Robert Smithson, Christo, Billy AI Bengston, Chuck Arnoldi, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, Pablo Picasso, and others have been role models whose work encouraged him to expand his ideas, to make something special out of his prefabricated materials and the spaces with which he works.

Slides and articles on Gehry's work were sent to Childs, who, with two years before the performances, agreed to participate in the project. Soon after she said, "Now I feel that it's time for me to move into different areas, to face the challenge of doing things I've never done before. I am that way. I never just turn away from something because it's the first time, or because I never did it before. In fact... just the opposite, I dive right in and don't -- necessarily -- check the pool for water.'' In a similar spirit, Gehry commented, "I go where my explorations take me -- I never go back. I never turn off the searching until, like a mathematician, I've solved the problem. When faced with a new problem to explore I feel like a curious cat who has been given the freedom to play. I feel like a voyeur."

MOCA's Temporary Contemporary in process. | Photo: Grant Mudford.
MOCA's Temporary Contemporary in process. | Photo: Grant Mudford.

Gehry, too, was initially unfamiliar with Childs's work. Slides, articles and our first meeting had to suffice as his introduction (though his daughter Brina, a dancer, was already an admirer of Childs's choreography). After several exploratory meetings in New York, Childs danced for Gehry in her studio.

During this period, audiotapes of different composers' musical compositions were sent to Childs. Jon Gibson, who composed the score for Childs's "Relative Calm," which had been premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that year, recommended that she get to know John Adams's work, and the Museum sent recordings of Adams's "Shaker Loops" and "Phrygian Gates." In an interview for the National Public Radio, "Radio-Visions" program, "Music in Reaction: The New Consonance" (produced by Charles Amirkhanian). Adams described "Shaker Loops" as being modular in the style of Steve Reich, but more violent in its transitions.

 

"My music is not as formally pure as some of the minimalists. Musical form, the shape of the music -- the highs and lows -- the topography of it is its most expressive potential. I go for changes in speed and tempo... The term "shaker" is sort of a pun that has to do with the shaking of bows across violin strings, and a veiled reference to the kind of religious activity that the Shakers used to take part in... When I was young, I always tried to imagine what kind of experience those people had when they got together in those beautiful old New England barns and performed a dance that brought them to a peak of ecstatic energy at which point they saw God."

 

After studying the album, Childs requested a meeting with Adams, which took place the next month, when Adams was on his way through New York to attend the European premiere of his composition 'Harmonium," which was to be conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. Childs danced for him, and they discussed the length and form that the music would take. Adams accepted the Museum's invitation to write the score for the project, aware that Childs had previously commissioned new compositions from Glass and Gibson, with whom he shared some musical affinity.

At about the same time, two adjoining warehouses, with combined floor space of 55,000 square feet, were identified as a suitable interim exhibition space, which was immediately dubbed "The Temporary Contemporary" by graphic designer Ivan Chermayeff. Frank Gehry was asked to design the renovation. At the public announcement ceremony a year later, as art writer Christopher Knight recollected, "The running gag of the day became [Mayor Tom] Bradley's opening reference to the grimy building as 'a marvelous hunk of junk.' 'I like this dismal piece of junk,' countered MOCA Director Richard Koshalek when it was his time at the podium... 'The space was just too beautiful to do anything much to it,' Gehry continued adding that his primary goal was simply 'not to screw it up."'

As envisioned by Richard Koshalek:

 

"The Temporary Contemporary is a research program. It's a chance for the Museum to take its ideas, to take what's being produced by the artist community, put it before the public, and let the public judge. We're going to make mistakes and we're going to have some very big successes, but that's all a part of this process. We're interested in commissioning work. We're interested in being a patron of new work, assisting the artist in producing new work. We think that that should be a very important part of the program, and I think that has to be done in a contemporary museum. It has to be open, it has to be flexible, and it really can't be afraid of making mistakes.""

 

It was not until the summer of 1982, after Childs returned from Europe, where she had been acting in a play and in a leading role in Susan Sontag's film, "Unguided Tour," that Gehry, Childs, and I met again. Gehry was in New York for an exhibition of his drawings, models, and furniture at the Max Protetch gallery. There was talk of presenting the performance, tentatively called "New Territory," in concert version -- without sets or costumes -- to rehearse the company before an audience at the Chateauvallon in Toulon, France, just preceding the Los Angeles premiere. It was likely that the completed work would be presented later at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Since the Stages of Performance was conceived as a series of commissioned works created for specific sites in Los Angeles, rather than as a touring program, a new set of issues needed to be addressed. Would Gehry's design for the performances at The Temporary Contemporary be adaptable to each possible new location, or would new "performance environments" need to be created? It became evident that the proposed collaboration was growing into an on-going process of interactive improvisation.

Lucinda Childs in a crescendo moment in the dance. | Photo: Grant Mudford.
Lucinda Childs in a crescendo moment in the dance. | Photo: Grant Mudford.

Because the Stages of Performance series is characteristic of the overall Temporary Contemporary program, the first performances were scheduled to coincide with the projected completion of the building renovation in September, 1983. Two key elements of the performances were still undecided: the costume designer and the performance site. Drawings, photographs, and samples of designers' work from California and New York were submitted to Lucinda Childs, who was also conducting a thorough search. In typical Los Angeles style, dozens of calls for advice on potential performance locations were placed throughout the county, followed by hours of driving to see them. At various times, the Museum and artists explored a civic center, a brewery, a loft, a wind tunnel, an outdoor amphitheater, a shopping mall, a pier, an Egyptian-style movie theater, a downtown corporate courtyard, a gallery, and a dilapidated warehouse.

On February 15, 1983, the three artists finally met together in Los Angeles. John Adams brought a tape of the first fifteen minutes of music he had composed at the Djerassi Foundation in Woodside, California. The synthesized sounds had a shimmering quality that brought to mind images of sunlight permeating a shower of rainy ocean mist. He subsequently titled the composition "Light Over Water."

Over the next two days, Adams, Childs, and Gehry spent hours discussing the project and looking for sites, until they settled on a huge, red brick warehouse on Central Avenue next to The Temporary Contemporary. It was slated for demolition and did not meet earthquake or other building codes, so special use permits were needed. Gehry began to develop an exciting proposal. The audience was to be seated on bleachers (facing the entrance of the building on Central Avenue) with a pit for the musicians unearthed in front of the bleachers. He suggested that fifty feet of the building's facade be removed to accommodate a special stage constructed on wheels that would be operated hydraulically. The stage would be lit in a traditional fashion, but during the fifty-three-minute performance, the stage would gradually move from indoors out to the street beyond. Skyscrapers in the background would be defined by powerful lights. By this time, Childs had asked lighting designer Beverly Emmons to participate in the project.

We agreed to meet again if building permits could not be guaranteed during the following two weeks. That meeting took place in April, when the participants decided that The Temporary Contemporary was the best possible location for the performance, even if the renovation was not completed. Since the Museum was facing delays in securing its five-year lease and occupancy papers Frank Gehry' s next proposal was made with the understanding that the renovation construction would probably be unfinished during the performances.

Gehry's plan for converting the warehouses into Interim exhibition spaces called for a lot of cleaning up, and with the exception of the addition of a chain-link galleria that would incorporate the street into the "inside" space as its lobby, there was to be very little alteration of the existing architecture. The ceiling was to be sandblasted, the interior steam-cleaned, unnecessary ducts and pipes removed, and the entire structure fireproofed and reinforced to bring it up to earthquake code. Most of the existing ramps, stairs, and boxlike rooms, including a 3,700 square foot "bunker," were to be retained. After some discussion, Gehry decided to place the seating on top of the bunker, and devised a plan for splitting the stage into two elevated, asymmetrical levels, which would be placed on simple builder's scaffolding in the center of the exhibition space. A chain-link scrim would be attached to the heavy beam structural reinforcements running behind the stages.

Gehry wanted the audience to be seated on raked bleachers, on top of the bunker, in an area that would be walled off on either side so as to restrict the viewer's sight line to the action and vast space before him. In effect, he would place the audience on stage. Gehry also asked that lighting be thrown onto the support beams, corners of the structure, through entryways to the adjoining warehouse, and from outdoors through the skylights, thus drawing attention to the simple materials of the building, which had previously been a hardware store and a police squad automobile repair shop. Gehry decided to illuminate the clerestory windows at the far end of the building in colors that would resemble a sunset.

Artist Robert Irwin with writer Lewis MacAdams. | Photo: Garry Winogrand. © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.
Artist Robert Irwin with writer Lewis MacAdams. | Photo: Garry Winogrand. © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

Recognizing that light was becoming a central theme in the performance, the artists decided to call it "Available Light." They were perhaps encouraged by the title Adams gave his composition, which was inspired by the dramatic changes in light that he witnessed while working at the ocean-side retreat where most of the music was composed. Gehry's interest in maximizing the use of natural outdoor light to illuminate interior spaces -- a concern he shares with many southern California painters and sculptors -- has been demonstrated in many of his buildings. Childs has increasingly used lighting to express her choreographic concerns since 1976, when she collaborated with Robert Wilson, Philip Glass, and Beverly Emmons on "Einstein on the Beach." Childs tends to view her work as more cinematic than sculptural.

Just before leaving for France, Childs asked Ronaldus Shamask to create the costumes for her dance company. Shamask said of his task as a designer,

 

"On the one level, there is the need to keep in mind the role of clothes as the bearers of all sorts of messages about the stage of society at a given time; the magic of all truly original fashion lies in the unclouded reflection it presents of the moment it was created. A dress has to incorporate the essence of its time in order to be timeless, which leads me to the second level: the qualities of reduction, of elimination, of purification -- the paring away of the design until it reaches the bare bones of skill."

 

Like the other artists working on "Available Light," Shamask eliminates nonessential structural details to arrive at honest, pure shapes.

Lucinda Childs continued to set choreography to John Adams's music, expanding her company to eleven dancers, and preparing for the open-air performances of the concert version of "Available Light" in France. By June, Adams had completed his score, and was just completing the brass parts, which he then mixed into the composition. Tempo, volume, and intensity gradually change through the course of "Light Over Water's" fifty-three minutes. Some of the dancers were experiencing difficulty counting out the time precisely enough to perform the steps Child's had choreographed to each note of the music. Adams realized this problem after he saw the performances in Toulon, and agreed to add some pulses to a couple of the "difficult" moments in the work. When asked why she had not choreographed any solos for herself, Childs explained that the lack of a regular pulse, "seemed to be a problem at first but later presented some interesting possibilities. The music forced me back into the dance as a central yet integrated figure, so that the other dancers could keep in time with me. I like it now." Childs commented that the effect of Frank Gehry's divided stage intimated that her choreography appeared "loose and out of control at time when it was not. There is more playfulness; one dancer picks off the movements of another. I have set symmetrical relations against asymmetrical ones. There is not the same orderly look as in past dances, but it has orderly underpinnings."

When Lucinda Childs returned to New York, Shamask presented her with a design for unisex costumes in red, black, and white. Intricate seams, a distinguishing characteristic of his work, were fashioned to appear outside of the garment, darting from one shoulder to the opposite hip, spiraling around one leg and the opposite arm of each dancer. Some seams remain open, so that the audience will be able to see glimpses of moving limbs during the performance. As Shamask noted, "The costumes will superimpose a living pattern of color on the dance; the shifting of the surface patterns will constantly change. The seams will appear to cut through space like a knife and give a shimmering effect to the dance." Shamask's designs for "Available Light" bear an interesting resemblance to one of the costumes for "The Triadic Ballet," choreographed by Oskar Schlemmer, and staged in Stuttgart in 1922. Schlemmer intended to illustrate the Bauhaus School's theories about the interrelationship among the underlying forms of the human body, and its overall relationship to the space surrounding it.

Frank Gehry, Lucinda Childs, and Beverly Emmons met once in New York, and later in Los Angeles, to map out the intricate lighting plot. During the performance of "Available Light," there would be changes in dimness, brightness, color, and intensity; the lighting would have a choreographic animation of its own. At the beginning of the performances, the environment would appear reddish. After a pause, the room would shade to blue, and finally, to white. For the finale, the lights would become very bright. Fluctuations in the music would have as much to do with the vacillations in lighting as would the choreography, except when the dance would alter from one predominant diagonal to another, and the choreography would dictate the directionality of the lighting.

Founding trustees Lenore S. Greenburg and Beatrice Gersh. | Photo: Garry Winogrand. © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.
Founding trustees Lenore S. Greenburg and Beatrice Gersh. | Photo: Garry Winogrand. © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

Emmons was asked to light the various architectural elements that Gehry had decided upon, and to highlight the facade of the building across the street, which would be visible through large picture windows.

Months before the premiere, John Adams asked Marion "Lolly" Lewis, who served as sound engineer for the recording and final mix of "Light Over Water," to visit The Temporary Contemporary, and analyze how best to amplify the taped composition. Since music has its own spatial concerns (what composer John Driscoll has referred to as "sonic architecture"), placement of the speakers would be as important to the quality of sound reproduction as the focus of the lights upon the dancers would be to the dance itself. Lewis consulted with Gehry so that the placement of the sound equipment would be integrated with his design.

In every aspect of the development of "Available Light," the site -- The Temporary Contemporary -- proved to be more than a framework within which the artists developed their ideas: The Temporary Contemporary has been a silent collaborator.

The authors of the catalogue essays were selected by John Adams, Lucinda Childs, and Frank Gehry; the texts were of necessity completed before the performance of "Available Light" in Los Angeles. The artists agreed to invite John Coy to design the catalogue and promotional material; he, in turn, invited photographers Grant Mudford and Garry Winogrand to document the performances, from stage installation to the striking of the set.

Though many of the participants in "Available Light" became acquainted only after working together on this project, they shared some similar interests from the start. Many respect minimalist aesthetic ideas, but attempt to expand those boundaries by creating new forms in their work; many use repetition, layering, and anti-illusionistic devices in their art; many attempt to involve the audience in the work by using expressive forms and imagery.

Each participant helped shape the project, which grew and gradually evolved over a two-and-one-half-year period of development. If you can imagine the creation of "Available Light," you too are a participant.

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