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Dance minimalist soars, and sinks

A leader of the ``minimalist'' trend in postmodern dance, Lucinda Childs, has stripped choreography to its essentials -- rediscovering the bedrock of dance in sturdy, elegant works based on the most straightforward of movements. Her ability to build simple walking, skipping, and turning into exhilarating art was demonstrated once more during the recent engagement of the Lucinda Childs Dance Company at the Joyce Theater here, when Program B served up a dazzling trio of excerpts from mighty works (``Dance'' and ``Einstein on the Beach'') to exciting Philip Glass scores. If only Program A had been so consistently strong. But it wasn't, and that's newsworthy, since it consisted of Childs's first full-length work since ``Available Light'' in 1983 and the luminous ``Relative Calm'' in 1981.

``Portraits in Reflection'' continues her exploration of newly complex elements (complex by contrast with her earlier works, that is) and her apparently growing interest in emotional expression. Like the disappointing ``Available Light,'' though, it doesn't quite succeed on its own terms -- generating a good deal of momentum during the first three portions but sinking into a muddy, murky swamp during the not-so-grand finale.

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To state the matter flatly, ``Portraits in Reflection'' goes wrong when it veers furthest from Childs's patented directness of approach. The chief villain is costumer Ronaldus Shamask, who decks out the company more exotically in each passing section and then jumps off the deep end in the concluding portion called ``Fleet,'' when (true to that title) he encumbers each dancer with a sort of sail apparatus, as if they were boats hopping around on a dry dock. The effect is bizarre at best, klutzy at worst.

The music for all four sections is vigorous, however, and clever in its varied use of just two instruments: harpsichord and violin. Elizabeth Swados (with a sort of rock-baroque blend) and Michael Nyman provide some of the more tantalizing sounds. Childs's choreography is also energizing at times, notably in the horizontal movements of ``Flowers,'' the third section. Robert Mapplethorpe did the intermittently effective sets and slide projections.

Childs and company will perform during April and May in Boston; Chicago; Ithaca, N.Y.; St. Louis, Mo.; and Iowa City, Iowa. A new Childs work for the Pacific Northwest Ballet will have its premi`ere April 2 in Seattle.

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