Architecture imitates dance, and dance takes its cues from architecture as the curtain rises on Benjamin Millepied’s Why am I not where you are at New York City Ballet (NYCB). A soaring white arch spans the stage with a torque not unlike classical ballet’s fourth position. Throughout the performance, the company of 20 ballerinas and danseurs execute arabesques and jetés — alone, in pairs, and en masse — in front, behind, around, and through its skewed opening. And the structure responds with taut bands that vibrate when the dancers’ feet hit the floor, and eases into a poignant bow at the finale.
The dance is one of five ballets that were commissioned by NYCB artistic director Peter Martins to premiere at the company’s 2010 spring season at the David H. Koch Theater (which would coincide with Lincoln Center’s 50th anniversary). Inspired by the collaboration of his predecessor George Balanchine and architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee for a 1981 Tschaikovsky Festival, Martins became intrigued with the idea of architecture as it relates to dance in form and movement. So, he invited Santiago Calatrava — who is, he says, “his favorite architect” — to create designs for the new program, appropriately dubbed The Architecture of Dance.
While engaging an architect to design for the stage is not unprecedented, Martins broke with the norm by asking that the architectural elements influence the shape of the choreography — as well as vice versa. Admiring the way “Calatrava’s work dances, I thought he could create environments that we could play off of to create dances,” Martins said at a talk presented by The New York Times in May.
The multidisciplinary architect was surprised by the offer because, although he sculpts and paints, he had not attempted theater design. But when Martins expressed interest in three of the Calatrava bronze sculptures displayed in the architect’s New York City office, the deal was sealed. Interestingly, “The stage demands a different approach from architecture,” notes Calatrava. “There is no wind. There is no rain. However, there are many special conditions, such as changing from one scene to another.” So, working closely with Martins, the choreographers, and NYCB technical director Perry Silvey, he began to learn what his parameters would be.
To begin, Calatrava and his teams in New York and Zurich developed 10 models, drawing on the vocabulary of his architecture. He also created a series of muted watercolors — later re-created and enlarged to fit the proscenium — for choreographers Christopher Wheeldon and Melissa Barak, who both wanted traditional painted backdrops for their story ballets. Wheeldon’s Estancia is set in Argentina’s pampas, while Barak’s Call Me Ben conjures up the life of Bugsy Siegel in the Las Vegas desert.
Successful as creative exercises, the painted scenes do not exploit the architecture-dance connection. This premise works best in Martins’s own choreography, as well as the ballets of Millepied and Italian choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti, which revolve around Calatrava’s dynamic constructions. Described as “objects” by the architect, each device depends on the human body for scale, and comes to life through the manipulation of light and shadow.
Hudson Scenic Studios did most of the engineering. “Mr. Calatrava’s engineers are brilliant,” says NYCB’s Silvey. “But they’re not used to building things that have to move on and off a stage in 15 or 20 minutes. For that we need to marry architectural with stage engineering.” Consequently, Hudson Scenic created a 27-foot-tall-by-44-foot-wide structure for the Millepied ballet comprising two arches made of steel, aluminum, and silicon surgical tubing bolted to the floor in a way that allows the unit to be detached quickly and “fly” above the stage between productions. Likewise, the studio made the seemingly straightforward 15-foot semicircles that gradually morph into a graceful, multihued “phoenix” above the dancers in Martins’s ballet Mirage out of aluminum and nylon cord for lightness and mobility. And for Bigonzetti’s Luce Nascosta, the crew crafted a suspended series of nine wood-framed radiating discs, designed to mimic a pantograph, by using a system of motor-driven carriers on tracks to move the discs — each supported by two cables. The movement is barely perceptible as eight of the golden discs (in progressively smaller diameters) appear from behind the largest, a glowing backlit nimbus that takes center stage.
Calatrava says he came out of the experience with a strong admiration for his collaborators. Indeed, he feels that his contribution to the whole endeavor is small, seeing the stage itself as subsidiary. “It helps to highlight the action. It helps to create transparencies for people to move in front of or behind it. It articulates things around it,” says the architect. “But if you take it away and the dancers perform, the peformance is still there.”