The Blanket performs Lucinda Childs: The Early Works. Photo by Ben Viatori, Courtesy The Blanket.

What It's Like to Dance Lucinda Childs to a Chorus of Ducks and Car Traffic

Intermittent quacking issued from the Just Ducky Tours amphibious vehicle floating along the Monongahela River. Revolutionary War–era reenactors recreated historical events at Fort Pitt. Bridge traffic rumbled overhead. This ambient symphony at Pittsburgh's Point State Park accompanied The Blanket as the dancers rehearsed and performed Lucinda Childs: The Early Works, a retrospective of four architectural, pedestrian works choreographed by the award-winning, post-modern dance maven between 1975 and 1978.

The Blanket, a project-by-project driven ensemble established in 2016 by Matt Pardo and Caitlin Scranton, aims to enhance Pittsburgh's modern dance community through reconstructions, commissions and collaborations with noted choreographers. Last weekend's presentation, which included Childs' Radial Courses, Katema, Reclining Rondo and Interior Drama, marked its first major presentation, challenging the dancers to perform the intricate choreography originally set to silence in an ambient, unpredictable soundscape.


"At first, I couldn't hear the rhythmic footsteps of the other dancers. I felt like an individual apart from the group," recalls dancer Eric Lobenberg, who had relied on auditory cues developed in-studio. "After several rehearsals, we began to connect with each other in different ways," adds the Point Park University senior.

Lucinda Childs: The Early Works. Photo by Ben Viatori, Courtesy The Blanket.

In rehearsals, the dancers were taught movement phrases from the four works and issued homework—scores with letters and numbers to decipher and memorize. Reconstructing the patterning with castmates, developing an internal meter and acquiring unity provided additional challenges.

"To the untrained eye, it just looks like walking and skipping," says modern dancer/choreographer Jil Stifel. "But there is a lot to think about." Reclining Rondo, a geometric floorwork, consists of a single repeated phrase but requires extremely slow execution, while the angular Katema calls for shifts in counting as well as "walking backwards in opposite directions." Radial Courses demands exacting attention to spatial alignment and its relentless, rhythmic circular pattern. Pardo and Scranton, both exponents of Childs' works, helped ease these challenges.

Lucinda Childs: The Early Works. Photo by Ben Viatori, Courtesy The Blanket.

The three-week rehearsal period was capped with a session conducted by Childs, en route from receiving the Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award. "She was gracious," says Stifel.

Adds fellow cast member Bianca Melidor, for whom dancing such rhythmically-specific work in silence was a new challenge, "I learned to trust myself."

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Ballet BC dancers Tara Williamson, left, and Darren Devaney in RITE by Emily Molnar. Photo by Chris Randle, Courtesy Ballet BC

Why Do Mixed-Rep Companies Still Rely on Ballet for Company Class?

In a single performance by a mixed-rep company, you might see its shape-shifting dancers performing barefoot, in sneakers and in heels. While such a group may have "ballet" in its name and even a rack of tutus in storage, its current relationship to the art form can be tenuous at best. That disconnect grows wider every year as contemporary choreographers look beyond ballet—if not beyond white Western forms entirely—in search of new inspiration and foundational techniques.

Yet dancers at almost all of the world's leading mixed-rep ensembles take ballet classes before rehearsals and shows. Most companies rarely depart from ballet more than twice a week and some never offer alternative classes.

"The question, 'Why do you take ballet class to prepare you for repertory which is not strictly classical?' has been in the air since Diaghilev's time," says Peter Lewton-Brain, Monaco-based president of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science. "What you're doing onstage is often not what you're doing in class."

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