The documentary, with archival clips, performance and rehearsal footage, and thoughtful comments by Childs, centers on three works that represent the phases of her work. Carnation (1964) made a deadpan mockery of women’s preoccupation with domestic objects — kitchen implements, hair curlers — and revealed Childs as a brilliant satirist. Einstein on the Beach (1976) began her association with Robert Wilson and Philip Glass, in the early stages of their immense careers. Dance (1979), with music by Glass and film by Sol LeWitt, created the paradox of “minimalist” choreography framed as a stage spectacle.
Childs and Hay started out with countercultural ideas about stripping away artifice, decadence, sentiment, and ego investment to focus on the basics of performing. Whereas Hay strove for naturalism and freedom to realize one’s own creativity, Childs put stripped-down dance materials into formal patterns dictated by musical structure, with a performing style based on her own reticent, elegant presence.
As later generations absorbed postmodernism, these instincts eventually proliferated again into ego, virtuosity, and excess. Boston Ballet’s final program of the season climaxed with Philip Glass & Twyla Tharp’s 1986 In the Upper Room, an example of minimalism gone backwards — into dazzling audience appeal. For six men and seven women, the dance combines extremes of rigorous form, ongoingness, and pure movement as subject matter. It’s a driven exercise in technique — ballet steps and pointe work, sneaker-clad athleticism — that continually recombines its forces in new ways for 40 minutes and leaves the audience flattened with exhaustion and pleasure.
An energizing workout for the dancers, In the Upper Room pushes their endurance and their concentration to the limit. At Sunday afternoon’s performance I thought the dance’s clockwork mechanism was slipping a little. Tharp’s fantastically difficult lifts and split-second timing were blurred. Some of the dancers, especially the leading Stompers, Melanie Atkins and Lia Cirio, grinned a lot and hammed up their roles like hoofers in a two-bit tab show. Tharp’s lieutenant, Keith Roberts, who staged this revival, must have approved these liberties, but one thing In the Upper Room doesn’t need is “expression” from the dancers.
Actually, the other two great repertory works on the program, George Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco (1941) and Antony Tudor’s Dark Elegies (1937), don’t need that either, and except for the smily corps de ballet in Barocco, the dancers were more restrained.
Balanchine liked to cast apparently mismatching dancers as the two soloists in Concerto Barocco — a big dancer versus a small one, a blonde and a brunette. Sunday afternoon’s Romi Beppu and Misa Kuranaga contrasted in more subtle ways. Beppu is a tight, small mover, Kuranaga inhabits a quick, global space. Kuranaga conceives the movement three-dimensionally, carrying her body through the whole arc of a direction change, while Beppu brings an extension of leg or arm to its limit, then finishes the path in a straight line.
Roman Rykine partnered Beppu beautifully in the second movement, keeping her turning smoothly in promenade arabesque, and setting her down without the slightest bump after lifts. His attention never left her, even when he was shepherding the eight other women through intricate daisy chains.