Is architecture still the alpha art it was when Frank Gehry’s fame, not the renown of his client, transformed an obscure Basque town into a major museum destination? This was one of several questions that came to mind following the excitement surrounding Santiago Calatrava’s much-heralded participation — as set designer — in New York City Ballet’s (NYCB) recent spring season.
While this was Calatrava’s initial foray into stage design, the field has been the province of architects since at least the first century B.C., when Vitruvius described long-established Greek and Roman theater conventions in De Architectura. Italian Renaissance architects revived these ancient traditions, adapting Filippo Brunelleschi’s one-point perspective system — a new tool of their trade — to create the illusion of deep space on a shallow stage. The Mannerist architect Sebastiano Serlio, who wrote the first practical treatise on architecture in the 16th century, devoted an entire volume — Scenographies, published in Paris in 1545 — to scenic design. This, and several seminal books on the craft that followed, informed generations of architects who practiced it — from Palladio in the 16th century to Inigo Jones in the 17th, from Karl Friedrich Schinkel in the 19th century to Joseph Urban in the 20th. Still others were in the vanguard of modern theatrical design.
Today, many well-known architects — including Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, David Rockwell, John Pawson, Zaha Hadid, Thom Mayne, Jean Nouvel, Dominique Perrault, Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, and, most recently, the firm of Herzog & de Meuron (who did the stage designs for the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Verdi’s Attila just this winter) — have created innovative sets for opera, dance, and theater.
Even at NYCB, Calatrava was preceded by Philip Johnson and John Burgee, who designed its Tschaikovsky Festival in 1981. Yet unlike his predecessors, Calatrava was not only deployed to set the stage; he also served to promote the ballet’s spring program, called The Architecture of Dance primarily in recognition of his contribution, though many famous choreographers, composers, and musicians were involved. He was the centerpiece of an aggressive publicity campaign that included not only in-house newsletters and bulletins, but ads and posters that appeared throughout the city. With Peter Martins, the company’s artistic director, he was featured at a public interview organized by The New York Times focusing on his designs. And he and his wife were made honorary chairmen of the season’s opening-night gala, where they were toasted before the evening’s audience. Yet, out of a total of five schemes, Calatrava ultimately produced only three set pieces that actually reflected his architectural gifts.
Can an architect’s celebrity draw audiences to dance performances nowadays, as well as to their venues? In these economically challenging times, can the Bilbao Effect sell tickets to the ballet? Perhaps. The New York Times quoted one patron, a dance lover and Calatrava fan, who said that for the first time in 40 years of attending NYCB, this spring he went to see the sets. Now, that really is groundbreaking.