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You’ve Never Seen a Performance Like ‘Available Light’

John Adams, Lucinda Childs, and Frank Gehry created the unique performance piece ‘Available Light’ 35 years ago. As it returns to the stage, the trio recalls its heady genesis.

Craig T. Matthew

Frank Gehry is probably the only living architect who is a household name, someone who is the subject of a documentary, who played himself on The Simpsons who inspired a T-shirt line with his name after an expletive (one he has been known to wear himself).

John Adams has won five Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, and for two decades has been widely regarded as one of the greatest living composers of classical music.

Lucinda Childs is a pioneering force in dance, whose simple yet intricate choreography became one of the dominant modes of dance for the last couple of decades, and someone who just last year was awarded the American Dance Festival’s prize for lifetime achievement.

But thirty-five years ago, they were little-known strivers, not even at the halfway point of their careers, when they came together to collaborate on a work that would become a landmark of performance art of the 1980’s.

Called “Available Light,” the piece combined Gehry’s stage design with music from Adams and choreography from Childs, and now will return to New York as part of Lincoln Center’s “Mostly Mozart” festival, thirty-five years after it debuted in Los Angeles.

In a series of phone interviews over the course of the last several weeks, Gehry, Adams and Childs all have different memories of how the piece first came together, how they became aware of each other’s work in the days before they were megawatt artistic celebrities, before the prizes and the awards. (Full disclosure: Gehry is also the architect who designed the New York City headquarters of IAC, parent company of The Daily Beast.)

He said, ‘We have to get together. You should come out here so we can find something that works for us.’
Frank Gehry

The original idea for the collaboration wasn’t theirs; it was instead the brainchild of curators at what was then the Temporary Contemporary Museum in Los Angeles, who suggested to Childs that she enlist Gehry and Adams in her next dance project and that they use an empty warehouse for it. Childs flew out to L.A from New York to meet with Gehry, then an architect well-known on the west coast but less so elsewhere.

“There were all of these architects that had worked in the visual art world, who had worked in theater, and he had not,” Childs recalled. “He said, ‘We have to get together. You should come out here so we can find something that works for us.’”

Which is not how Gehry remembers it. In a phone interview from his Los Angeles office, Childs invited him out to New York, where he sat on the floor of her studio and watched her dance for over an hour.

“It was mesmerizing,” he recalled.

Regardless of who met who where, the duo reached at to Adams, whose only guideline from Childs was to compose something that could be danced to within 60-70 minutes. “We all gave each other a great amount of leeway.”

He had been experimenting with electronics since his graduate school days when he composed a piece for his master’s thesis at Harvard that used pieces of recorded spoken text from the novelist William S. Burroughs. So for Childs, Adams composed another tape piece.

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“I was aiming for symphonic scale,” he told The Daily Beast. “I wanted to build large musical arcs with high and lows. I ended up writing something that was very difficult to choreograph, with big washes of sounds. I was very influenced by the California landscape. I wrote it in winter when there is a lot of rain out here, and there are lot of passages in the piece that reflect that, but they make for little pulses for the dancers to pick up.”

For me it is about the coexistence of the choreography and the music, a dialog between those two forces and a dialogue with the visual effect of Frank Gehry’s stage.
Lucinda Childs

“John’s music was a challenge,” concedes Childs. But her company traveled to France for a residency with Adams, and he tweaked his score at her suggestions.

What Childs came up with in her choreography are eleven dancers in sets of three interlocking groups, each clad in red, white or black, moving in simple balletic gestures in what was described by one critic at the time as a “precisely ordered, continually changing patterns of diamonds and half circles.”

When I became an architect I became aware very quickly that the built world was being built in the most obscene and illiterate way and it was creating a chaotic environment.
Lucinda Childs

“It is completely abstract,” said Childs, who danced in the original performance, but now at 77, will not in this one. “For me it is about the coexistence of the choreography and the music, a dialog between those two forces and a dialogue with the visual effect of Frank Gehry’s stage.”

The piece was originally performed at former LA police department garage; Gehry created two levels for the colossal stage, and partially wrapped the stage with chain link fence. It was, he says now, “an act of defiance.”

“When I became an architect I became aware very quickly that the built world was being built in the most obscene and illiterate way and it was creating a chaotic environment. And since then it has only gotten worse. And people seem OK with it. And sometimes you get negative people who think if you express yourself it is an ego-trip. So they invent a term, what’s it called, a ‘starchitect.’ The press invented this term.”

Putting a chain link fence on stage was a way to re-purpose the kind of banal material that cities like Los Angeles were already filled with to see if something more artistic could be done with it.

“It’s this material everybody hates,” Gehry said, who went to a chain link fence factory in Southern California as part of his research for Available Light. “It’s this material that is do despicable to everybody but is being absorbed into the culture so easily, so I thought you could do something with it to make it better. I was trying to humanize chain link.”

Although some critics didn’t know what to make of Available Light when it first debuted in 1983, the piece was a sensation. Audiences knew they were witnessing a landmark in performance art.

It was an iconic product of that era. I listen to it and I hear ideas and themes that have consumed me for the rest of my career.
John Adams

From Los Angeles it travelled to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where Gehry tweaked the stage set to fit the new space. It had a brief revival in 2105, touring Europe and parts of the U.S., but the performance at Lincoln Center will be the first time that Available Light has been performed in New York since its premiere.

“You can film these works, but even so I feel the only way to see the work really is to be there in the audience, to interact with the space,” said Childs.

On this, Gehry and Adams agree.

“It was an iconic product of that era,” said Adams. “I listen to it and I hear ideas and themes that have consumed me for the rest of my career.”

“I don’t think any of us thought it would be repeated,” said Gehry. “That, along with getting to know John and Lucinda, has been a very nice surprise.”

There are performance of Available Light on July 12 and 13 at Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York City. Details here.