Terpsichore and the architects: 'I have a deep sense of my body's architecture ... the skeleton', said choreographer Trisha Brown in her prelude to the Royal Academy Forum which brought the worlds of dance and architecture together. In these pages Jeremy Melvin summarizes contributions, from a classicist, two architects, three choreographers and artist David Ward.
Dance had a particular significance in Ancient Greece. Its subsequent history in Western culture is grounded in the Christian response to the Greek world, from the early dismissal of bodily pleasure to the discovery that Greece could be an antidote to Christian bodily attitudes in the late nineteenth and early twenticth centuries. Nothing shows the changing significance of dance better than the terrible problem contemporary theatre has with the chorus when staging Greck drama.
A story reveals much about how dance was viewed in Ancient Greece. Cleisthenes, tyrant of Sicyon in the 5th century BC was a distinguished, wealthy and powerful man with a daughter to marry off. At the Olympic Games he announced a competition for the best and brightest of the Greeks to gather at Sicyon within 60 days. He would recompense each defeated suitor with one talent of silver, and the winner would be known throughout Greece as the best man of his age. The day of judgment arrived. One hundred oxen were slaughtered and as the feast progressed, the favoured suitor, Hippocleides, who had had one too many glasses of wine, called for a table to show off his excellence in dancing. At first he danced a solid, Spartan dance, then a rather more fey Athenian dance. Finally he stood on his head and kicked his legs lasciviously in the air. The prospective father-in-law became increasingly outraged and eventually could not bear it any longer. 'You have danced away your wedding!' He exclaimed, to which Hippocleides cheerfully replied, 'Hippocleides couldn't care less!' which became a proverb.
For the Greeks, what you did with your body showed what sort of a man you were. Given the Greek obsession with training the body, perfecting its symmetrical balance through exercise became a moral and social vocation. Dancing became a charged moment when the body could be seen in its perfected form, poetry in motion. Kicking your legs in the air was not just a social gaffe, but condemned the perpetrator to eternal recognition as the man who couldn't care less.
Plato captured the Greek attitude to dance, in loose translation, 'If you do not participate in the singing and dancing of the chorus you cannot consider yourself educated and cultured', or more simply, 'no chorus, no culture'. The chorus had immense importance in the social fabric of Ancient Greece. It was here that the educative force of dance was felt, as they were performing the stories behind Greek culture; learning and singing the songs was a form of acculturation, institutionalized by training. That is why so many choral performances did consist of young men and women as they were being trained into adulthood and why, too, so many performances were at crises of transition like marriages or funerals. Choruses were above all important when the city put itself on display. Dance was the embodiment of cultural tradition, and whenever the boundaries of culture needed to be reinforced, the chorus was there to dance.
In Greek theatre the chorus always marched onto stage in a square, but danced in circular mode. The dance consisted of three sections: strophe, antistrophe and epode. The strophe consisted of a turn, the antistrophe a counterturn, with matching rhythms and metres. The epode was a fixed position. So the circular theatrical space came into existence. Just as a religious procession marked out the space of religion, the chorus danced the architecture of the theatrical space into being. In a classical city, dance connected war and culture and articulated the spaces for public ritual.
There were other sorts of dance in the classical world, but they were suspect. Xenophon's Symposium told of a Sicilian dancing master who staged a dance of a slave boy and a girl in the story of Dionysus and Ariadne. It was so seductive, said Xenophon, that everyone leapt up to go home and have sex with their wives--except Socrates. The link between sex and dancing continues through the ancient world and culminated in the Pantomime, which literally means 'a man who imitates everything'. With its emphasis on the solo dancer, it marks a shift in the culture of dance. The dancer was a storyteller whose body told a story, like a sculpture coming alive or a mobile embodiment of tradition.
It could even replace diplomatic missions, as a Black Sea king suggested to the Emperor Nero that a dancer might be able to interpret for his barbarian neighbours. But the heady pleasures of dance also made Romans very nervous. Cicero never danced and there is no record of any proper Roman man dancing. Upright Roman military men could not deal with the flexibility of a dancer's body. Worrying about their emotional response separated dance from the citizen's body. Dance's space no longer followed the Greek pattern: it could be an instrument for diplomacy or sexual pleasure, but it took place out there and ceased to be a mode of acculturation.
Early Christians developed their moral fervour against this backdrop. They had no truck with bodily pleasure and easily dismissed dance. Dance was banned, and for centuries Christians didn't dance ... It was only the rediscovery of Greek culture in the Renaissance that changed the Christian distrust of dance. The second century BC Greek writer Lucian, who thought dance good because it could tell stories, was rediscovered and became the source for numerous dancing master manuals. Greek tragedy helped to shape opera. But our nervousness over how to treat the body and its rhythmic movement in space has remained, and we are still trying to resolve the tension between the perfect body and the disastrous body, and what the social impact of dance is.
SOFT BODIES IN HARD PLACES
Here are some random and contradictory thoughts about space and about our dancing selves.
Why is it that when you watch a wonderful dancer you get the impression that they can go anywhere, that they can fly, whereas in fact they're stuck in this little box of a stage? It seems to me that we conspire between us, performer and audience, to create virtual freedom in space. So how does a choreographer create that freedom, how can they work with the space? Do they manipulate it, push it and pull it, or should they allow it to unfold and speak for itself?
For myself I find that if you push and pull the space it works well, and if you let it unfold itself, even allow yourself not to make any decisions about where you go, it still works well.
And I find that if you work with the architecture that surrounds you it will support you, and if you consciously rebel against the architecture that surrounds you it will go on exerting its influence anyway. The proportions of a rectangular stage can make all the difference between a performance working or not, being focused or not. But at the same time where a choreographer places something inside the rectangle of the stage can also utterly alter its impact.
How then to negotiate with the shape of the stage? In one performance recently my dancing partner and I had the difficulty that the space was narrow from side to side and we got pulled all the time into the middle. So we gave ourselves the thought that everywhere we went was middle and everywhere was as important as everywhere else, and somehow it worked, and somehow we stopped the force of the walls from pushing us inwards.
There is also this unusual phenomenon: when you perform in a room with white walls the audience are more inclined to relax and laugh; when you perform in a room with black walls they tend to sit in silence and hold their breath.
Why do people tend to think of front as a flat wall? What happens if you imagine front as being anywhere that feels like front, that doesn't yet feel like side? If you try this when you're dancing you feel liberated for a moment, you feel your body as curved and soft compared to the surrounding walls, you occupy space in an unbounded way.
Sometimes when I climb mountains I'm aware of the whole complex machine of my body and mind focusing on shifting, balancing and adjusting with each step, improvising my journey with unconscious brilliance and joy. And I wonder what the endless flat surfaces of buildings, roads and pavements do to us. Try one day walking through the city as though it's a mountain landscape. Soft bodies in hard places.
In the '60s and '70s there was a lot of dance coming out of New York that was fascinated with everyday movement, and everyday movement was given the name pedestrian movement. The image of the human being in the city landscape. And these fascinations among dance makers arose, I think, out of a desire to reflect the actual physical relationship we have with the architecture of cities. It was a desire also perhaps to anchor the dance in a real place away from the illusion of theatre, so that the performance could happen here and now, in this room, this building, street or rooftop, and not in an imagined other place.
The other day I was on the phone to the man I dance the sitting dance with, and as we were speaking I suddenly became conscious that I was pacing a rhythmic path between the joints of the floorboards and the angles between the points of the furniture, round and round, back and forth. I told him what I was doing and he laughed, and he told me he was doing the same thing.
Our movement memory stores a map of the buildings and cities we use. The map which the dancer has to raise their arms to the first position of ballet isn't much different from the map we all have to get out of bed in the dark, open the door, walk down the corridor and into the bathroom. Our use of buildings becomes a kind of dance, like any other dance, stored in our hard wiring.
Short cuts through a building or across a city are highly prized as special knowledge, intuitive and unconscious.
The way our movement memory works is that every physical task we give ourselves is eroded over time towards the point of maximum efficiency. If a building causes us to make more effort than we need to get from A to B then we're frustrated, and we're frustrated more as time goes by because our bodies get the hang of the journey while the building is fixed in its ways.
I never cease to be amazed at how disoriented I am trying to climb a stopped escalator. My muscles expect an easy ride, and when they don't get it they feel heavy as lead, I have to drag myself up.
In Montreal they have pedestrian crossings that count down in seconds the time you have left to cross the road. I noticed that even within a few days this frequent lesson in time and distance was changing how I thought about walking. I noticed that I was measuring other distances using the muscle memory of the timed road crossings.
Why do we seem so fascinated by either very small buildings or very large buildings, as though both extremes allow us to measure ourselves? Of course, like a mountain, a large building can remind us of our own insignificance. I think about the times I've seen people dancing in buildings and how a lot of those times the building seems to have won, to have reduced the dance and the dancers to insignificance.
One of the most frustrating and freeing qualities of dance performance is that it's gone the moment it's finished. Dance itself in our society is almost invisible. We tend to think of clubs as places to be hedonistic and the fact that thousands gather every weekend to dance together is almost forgotten. Architecture on the other hand seems solid, almost permanent.
But think about this for a moment. Most of the dancing in the world is done packed close up to other people, no space at all, not about space at all. Then again, it's usually the room itself that orchestrates this spacelessness.
A constant negotiation between inner and outer space.
Soft bodies in hard places.
DANCE, DEATH AND LIFE
The Japanese tradition of Noh theatre depends on a strong connection between dance and architecture. Noh emerged in the sixteenth century, when Japan suffered from civil strife and outbreaks of disease, and one of its most important themes is the relationship between the world of death and the world of life. The design of Noh theatres embodies a ritualized description of the relationship between the world of death and the world of life, and dance becomes the connection between them.
Dating from the seventeenth century, the Nishihonga Theatre in Kyoto shows the traditional layout for a Noh stage. It has a large internal space with the stage on one side and space for the audience on the other. Between them is a space of separation, filled with combed white sand, which symbolizes the separation between the dancers and the audience, and between the world of dead and living people. In the plan there is also a clear distinction between the space for preparation and the stage. Between them is a diagonal bridge which symbolically separates the worlds of death and life. This is an important element in the architecture, and its effect is powerful enough for dancers to confess to confess to being nervous at the starting point of the bridge, though they lose their fear once they begin to walk. Le Corbusier also used the diagonal to convey a separation between two different worlds.
Noh costumes, in particular the masks, convey a similar duality. Masks are very small so they do not completely hide the dancers' faces. The audience can see two worlds: the world of death in the mask and daily life in the face underneath.
Many modern Noh theatres have lost the visceral effect that comes from this traditional layout. The 'modern' design of Noh theatres originated in one building in Tokyo, dating from 1885. There the separation between stage and audience is only one metre, and the entire space is enclosed in a large interior, buried within a concrete building. In the traditional theatre the space of separation should be open to the elements such as the wind and sunlight.
That is the feeling I wanted to recapture in my design for a theatre in Toyama, a small town with a population of 6000, and a tradition of Noh performances which goes back 300 years. The final design is rather different to the theatre in Tokyo. However, it is also different from the traditional ones too. Instead of white sand there is black sand. It lies within a dark forest, and we thought the design should continue the atmosphere of the forest. It can be difficult to change tradition in this way, but the scholars I consulted agreed with this change, and pointed out that the tradition has evolved over time.
Another change is the panel around the stage. I wanted the floor to look as if it were floating on the dark sand. Again an expert confirmed that there were examples of stages literally floating over water. The audience sits, as they should on a tatami floor.
This space of separation is extremely important in Japanese architecture. It is also important in music. In dance this void can be used to signify both space and time. Also the floor is much more important than the wall. In Japanese dance the performers remain close to the floor. They never jump as in Western dance; they walk slowly and quietly, if possible in low positions just above the floor. Horizontality is very important. So in my design the floor is the only component of the stage. There is no panel or wall behind and the audience sees a real pine tree beyond.
The idea for the Glass/Water House came from the layout of Noh theatres. It has the same concept of the diagonal, with a bridge to the 'stage' which is actually the lounge. Here too the floor is once again the most important element and the wall in comparison is a weak component in the space. Emphasized by back lighting, the floor becomes a connector between the world of living and another world, in this case the ocean. The edge also is crucial. It should be an abstract element and it is designed to be as simple as possible.
The German Modernist architect Bruno Taut visited Japan in 1933 and designed a building near the Glass/Water House. He also noted the importance of the floor as a connector of two different spaces in a book he wrote about Japanese culture, and so it was partly from Taut and the European Modernist tradition that I recognized its importance in Japanese cultural tradition.
SHOBANA JEYASINGH and JONATHAN BURROWS
SJ Duets with Automobiles, a film I made in 1993 with the director Terry Braun, is a starting point for explaining how I DON'T choreograph any more. It was a piece made for buildings, very much about dance and architecture, but it's got a very particular relationship between movement and buildings. We decided to locate it in various office buildings in London, and because it was the early 1990s, a lot of very beautiful new buildings in the City and Canary Wharf were empty. We were very lucky to use these buildings for no fee. The type of movement was based on my own training in South Indian classical dance. It was a dialogue between the classical Indian body and twentieth-century urban buildings.
JB Could you explain what you don't like that you were doing with space then, and what you are now doing which is different?
SJ I was trained in a classical style, and that's a bit like being an architect. Perhaps a frustrated one! You are given certain building blocks and no matter what you try to do with them you end up with the same building. The parts are so pre-determined, the shape of the body, the way you move, the emotion you produce and the relationship to the space around you, are very set. As a choreographer and dancer you create architecture on many different levels. The first level is the body itself, the shapes and lines you create. The second level, dancing with other people, is about composition, the way those shapes relate to other shapes. Third, you are putting that into the space around you. I found that on all those levels classical dance was not giving me a lot of choices.
When I first started doing Indian classical dance I had the idea that I was in a neutral space. But I realized that it was not neutral; it only seemed neutral because I had become used to a particular way of relating to it. That was the first thing I started to question. Like ballet, Indian dance uses turnout, when you rotate your hip joint and make a very extrovert surface of your body, and that sets so many things in place. It is like being given a Doric column and asked to incorporate it into every building! I felt as if the building had been 70 per cent pre-designed.
JB Could you explain what you mean when you say dance deals with space in a time-driven way?
SJ Coming from a background in Indian dance, I grew up with the idea that dance is about carving out space. A lot of people, architects particularly, look at dance as making patterns and shapes in space. In Indian classical dance one is very familiar with the shape of the dancing Shiva. Shiva patterns space in a very symmetrical way. Indian dance is about telling eternal truths about the body and space. The dancer is like an icon keeping people in touch with elemental shapes that the body makes. Through the dancing body people are able to recognize the same primary shapes, diagonals, circles and squares that exist in nature.
Unlike architecture, dance presents ideas of space in the very particular medium of time. You cannot linger over shapes, or travel again and again through the wonderful arch you happen to like. A dance performance communicates very complex information about space and shape, but the audience can only access it through the medium of time. The signature of the choreographer lies not so much in the way they use space, but how they carve up the architecture of time.
JB For me that gives space a whole new perspective. Are the number systems of Indian architecture and dance related?
SJ Indian dance can have a very organic relationship to architecture. Some dances were designed to be seen in south Indian temples, and they have a very arithmetical rhythm. In the dance you see all the features of those temples; they are manifest in the way dance uses the body. The body is turned into a prototype for perfect symmetry, so everything that is done on the right side is immediately done on the left, and the way it progresses through space is also symmetrical. In its rhythmic structures you see the same sort of architectural principles. In India we don't do these dances in temples, but if you show them in theatres, an Indian audience brings an understanding of that tradition, in number, rhythm and the way dance uses space.
It seemed strange to put Indian classical dancers, creating their own kind of meaning in other spaces. What classical dance creates, to use an architectural simile, is a huge public building, whose conventions are supposed to be in the public arena. It's rather like the understanding Londoners have of the underground, of how the ticket machines and tunnels work. The audience should be familiar with this, knowing the equivalents of where the escalators are the ticket office is and what happens if you have the wrong ticket. But when touring Indian classical dance through Britain, I realized there was something wrong in me taking something that amounts to making a very public building and recreating it in places like Accrington on a November evening. There was such a mismatch between the intentions of the dance and what people were perceiving. People don't necessarily know the conventions. No matter what building you create, they always assume it's the Taj Mahal.
This made me aware of the politics of theatre space. When I go to the theatre I realize I have to engage with the hierarchy of Western theatre space, with its own conventions and rhetoric of upstage, downstage, green space, centre stage. There is a very particular power relationship. When you put a body in such a space, you are already telling a story. I find that I am not interested in centre stage any more. Before I choreograph a single movement, just by choosing where I put a dance I have already made a political choice. The wing spaces, especially that psychologically nebulous place just before entering, is where my interest lies.
ON PLANNING AND IMPROVISATION
Contemporary architecture seems to be fascinated by notions like movement, process and time. Ironically though, these conditions are inherent to dance rather than architecture, which traditionally stands for stability rather than instability. I want to discuss this relationship first in view of the logics of stability and instability, and then to show how they arose in the conversion of the Bockenheimer Tram Depot in Frankfurt into a theatre, which was a collaboration with the choreographer William Forsythe. In a particular way this project raised issues of translation between different disciplines, questions on the relationship between planning and improvisation and finally hopes and doubts on the performative potential of architecture.
A common contemporary approach to space characterizes it by flows and movements rather than solids. In this context architecture seems to be more and more anachronistic: a medium having a difficult relationship with phenomena which unfold over time, an anachronistic discipline with serious problems of adjustment. Traditionally, the essence of architectural planning lies in foreseeing and predetermining a future status. Following its etymology the 'architect' is more than a 'technikos'. He is an 'archi-tect', ie someone who deals with 'arche', a notion that oscillates between being an organizing principle and a command. Assuming that this deterministic and authoritarian approach is still part of the architectural culture, something like a positive conflict between the disciplines was programmed in the collaboration between an architect and a choreographer. Certainly, as a choreographer William Forsythe has authority and may have a certain control over the dancers, but the creative process differs significantly from architectural planning. It is more open and driven by process, and its temporal logic is quite different. Improvisation is a key notion in Bill's choreographic work and it could be seen as a problematic opposite of the determination inherent in architectural plans.
The main concept for the theatre was to open the space as much as possible to the public realm and for public use. Part of Bill's question to us was how to provide spaces that were not determined, that invited a variety of uses and correlated movements. What our collaboration suggests is that there is more than one way of being a body. Architecture always turns us into bodies in a specific way. Hospitals, fitness studios, schools and even public space impose certain expectations on the body. We wanted to investigate what the body could become in a less defined space. To some extent we tried to find a way of suggesting different uses of the body. On top of that the idea was to provide spaces where 'Public Life', a complex programme of workshops, concerts, performances and films curated by Louise Neri, could run simultaneously in a theatre that is open from 12pm-12am.
We explored several methods of architectural reconfiguration and looked at various ways of differentiating spaces with acoustic conditions. The proportion between controlled formal spaces and informal areas became part of permanent negotiation, and this change over time reflected the architectural concept for the project. What provides the scope for these readjustments over time is felt, made into a huge vertical element on an architectural scale. It divides a formal theatre arrangement with auditorium and stage, from an informal space. One side works on a scheduled division of time; on the other time is unregulated. The felt wall provides a flexible axis through the building and permits a spatial negotiation between these two spheres, with temporal readjustments and adaptation.
All the elements are meant to be tactile and to stimulate different physical reactions to the spaces. Felt is also the material for a series of different modules and furniture. Used on the floor it reduces reverberation time and creates a softness so the floor can be inhabited. We never wanted to be far from the floor, because it is very much a dancerly room in this respect. So the question was: How can we get people to react differently to this room? One of the ways was to say that they do not arrange their bodies according to a situation, but that they arrange the situation according to their bodies. All of our benches and tables are a little bit too wide--they are wide enough to do other things than just sit on. They don't define just one specific position or function. You see how people spread themselves out, they are more curvilinear in their postures. They are using more than just their backbones to support themselves. They are spreading their bodies out, their weight is differently distributed.
It is interesting how modular elements are reconfigured into beds, blankets, pillows, in an almost unpredictable way. This interests me a lot: how something we planned can disappear as a design, an oscillation between something planned and something that evolves. It seems contradictory: planning the unpredictable.
In searching for the limits of architecture's performative potential we first tried to find a one-to-one translation between architecture and movement. In other collaborative projects with sound and visual artists (like the Sound Pavillon that we realized for the Museo Serralves in Porto), we developed notation strategies as a common basis for the different disciplines, but in the depot the approach had to be about facilitating different possibilities rather than a direct linkage. What was critical, though, was the tension which arose in the negotiation between planning and improvisation. Traditionally working out plans and drawings is at the centre of an architectural project, but here we were dealing with totally different rhythms of production and creation: an ad-hocism.
So the question was: How do you create coherence? The notion of memory is important. In architecture, to a certain extent, the drawing is a medium that guarantees and stabilizes memory, which is important in the translation from drawing to building. In dance, however, it seems to be much more about a memory that does not depend on other mediums like drawings. It is a different way to communicate spatial phenomena. As Bill puts it: 'The common thing is threshold'. Architectural plans are in this sense hard thresholds. Having a different kind of physical logic, the threshold in choreography is much softer. The actual materialization of an idea is not a 'plan'. It goes straight from the idea to the structure. It happens in a process in which it is sometimes hard to say when you have passed over from one state to the next. In this sense choreography is in itself 'graphy'--a drawing. We are not drawing, we are drawn.
DANCING ABOUT ARCHITECTURE
The first opportunity to work collaboratively on a dance work came in 1985 when I made Huge Veil with Miranda Tufnell and Dennis Greenwood at Riverside Studios. A vast curtain of raw silk curved down from the ceiling to cover the dance floor with the dancers working in front and behind with their bodies and shadows, concluding with a luminous duet. Huge Veil moved via choreography and light, from a strong connection with painting towards architecture, through relationships between vertical and horizontal planes.
Later, at the Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge, I draped the West Pediment from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia with cloth animated by a theatre wind machine for a work called Pneuma. This also animated the clothes and hair-dos of visitors but it essentially revealed the bodies of the statues beneath, which seemed to press themselves against the billowing fabric.
My interest in the place the body occupies in relation to the vertical and horizontal recurs in Struck, a short dance made with Catherine Tucker at the Whitechapel Art Gallery--a most reductive expression of framing the moving and unstable body in relation to a constructed, free-standing intensely luminous wall.
Large architectural scale entered the work in two collaborations with Bruce McLean and Gavin Bryars in the Albert Dock for Tate Liverpool. In the first of these, in 1986, a group of sopranos sang from a floating plinth, taking the watery horizontal plane as their floor, wearing life-jackets on top of their evening gowns.
However, in 1991, as artist in residence at King's College, Cambridge, looking out of my studio window every day, across the Front Court at the South Front of King's College Chapel led to Cast. Cast was a work (re-made in 2003) in which the entire elevation of the building was illuminated with blue light from daylight (when no blueness was visible at all) through dusk, when the building achieved a luminosity similar to the sky, into darkness when the elevation was vivid blue. The vast blue facade was formally reminiscent of the luminous wall I mentioned in Struck. But now the blue vertical plane became part of a space to be inhabited not by the performing body, but by the viewer, on the horizontal surface of the grass of the Front Court. A phone call from Siobhan Davies, asking to have a conversation about light, rekindled these interests, and we collaborated on her recent piece Bird Song.
DAVID WARD AND SIOBHAN DAVIES
DW Trisha Brown spoke about the architecture of the body, but you have used the term quite independently.
SD The importance of the body's architecture seems obvious. Even the action of standing to walking is an extraordinary feat of redistributing the weightload through every bone and muscle. Dancers have to learn how to adjust by using cantilevers; if you lift a leg or an arm the cantilever has to work out in the opposite side of the body. Structurally you are working yourself out all the time. Dancers should also be able to work with the volume of their bodies, so they can appear to be light or heavy and weighty. They can't physically change their weight, but they can imagine putting density into the body which gives a different feel to the structure. It might be more stony, leaden, feathery or pointy, and it shifts the sense of density in body. The more experienced dancers become, the more articulate they are.
When there is one rhythm below the hips and a counter rhythm in the upper body, there must be some kind of symmetry or organization in the connection between them that infuses the torso with a different energy than it's ever had before. That builds in an inner architecture with volume, texture, and rhythm, which allows you to slice up space like a Leonardo man. The moment you send that energy out through an arm it slices up space to the side. The instant you throw a gaze you send out energy, and its sheer warmth changes the space. Moving into the space behind is anatomically harder, as the limbs are less articulate behind the spine. But I am interested in audiences surrounding dancers, and I am trying to learn more about being a 360 degree artist rather than 180 degree artist.
DW Do you think of this as shape making?
SD That comes more from a classical culture. Classical ballet and Classical architecture share proportion, grandeur, and the idea of being at the centre of the universe. As we become more contemporary we realize we are not at the centre. To some extent our body is conditioned to reveal some of those cross currents in society and in ourselves; its inner architecture helps us. I would like to get away from the idea of shape but I do like clarity. So I face a dichotomy: how can the body have that clarity without it being attached to a singular shape idea, but through a series of energies that traverse through the volume of the body? Making their inner currents and the emotions that spring from them clear to an observer is a fascinating part of my work.
DW How is it possible to make spatial structures not just for an individual dancer, but project them across the whole company?
SD Choreography is a process, and it relates to an inherent human condition. As a person I am able to think the entire time. Why should I lose the possibility of decision making during a performance by setting its limits? The thought process in rehearsal is crucial. I may set a task where four people are at a counter rhythm, but how can four people be clear about four very different rhythms each with profound emotional and practical effects? The only way of resolving this is to go though the task until the dancers find enough information, so that they can mutually decide to set that information, or mutually decide to improvise as long as possible, even into the performance. If we knew what we were going to achieve we might as well go home. But when we discover something we have never thought of before life gets exciting. Bird Song is conceived as a 360 degree piece, where each viewer has their own viewpoint.
We had endless discussions about letting the audience stand or wander around, or whether they should sit in a particular place. I want the audience to go away with an impression that is as concrete as they can absorb. To concentrate they might have to sit. But if they stand they have another journey through the piece, even to the point of forgetting their bodies and entering ours. That experience might give them another odder space to inhabit which gives them a different sense of their own bodies.
DW How might this change the spatial relationship between audience and performers?
SD The effect I want is different to the proscenium arch, but the proscenium arch developed because the spectacle of a group of people on stage was fascinating. The proscenium arch established a relationship between performers and audience that allowed a grand scale. Film too offers an enormous spectacle, but also gives detail, which a proscenium cannot give.
I want dancers to move grandly in a spatial sense, but also to be close enough for the audience to see detail and decision-making, as well as the subtlety of action in moving from one side to the other: it is gorgeous and articulate, but cannot be seen through a proscenium arch. I am dying for the audience to experience the detail I love. So I want to try to join the effect of mass movement in big space with a large stage, but stay close to the audience. There is no easy answer.
DW For Plants and Ghosts you chose varied spaces with different architectural characters. Are you drawn to works that change according to the place, or is continuity of choreography at the heart of your approach?
SD As with good friends and good conversations, buildings and people need a long time to get to know each other. If a space were to influence me I would have to rehearse and perform in it for some time, so we could both soak each other up. With Plants and Ghosts we explored what the conversations would be in different volumes of space. We started in an air force hangar which housed fighter planes: I did not want that atmosphere to come into the work, but what I loved was that the building had a curved roof, thick walls, and it felt protected. Approaching by bus we had to drive three miles up the runway, before moving into a windowless space. In the end I should not have found it so fascinating and in some ways that overture ruined the experience. But at the time I thought it would be useful to have an adventure, to enter into a different imaginative space.
The most important thing is the relationship between you and what happens on stage. Where does not necessarily matter, though it is usually a large clear span space, which few places outside theatres have. Architectural requirements can be that simple.
DW You are working with the architect Sarah Wigglesworth. Are you choreographing her?
SD She is converting a Victorian school building and we want to make a large, contemporary studio on the gabled third floor. Architecturally she is able to influence the building's style increasingly towards the top. It culminates in her contemporary vision of the roof, a structure of waves that bring in light from the top. Light and acoustics are very important in dance and architecture: we have to consider how we introduce light to form and how we hear ourselves live in that form.
DW Do you draw a lot, and is it a unique kind of notation?
SD Trisha Brown has always done extraordinary drawings that are now seen in galleries.
Merce Cunningham uses computer work, so he has a graphic idea in front of him. I write garbage, and hope that it clarifies the garbage out of my body so when I go to the studio something better emerges. But dancers inform me far more than drawing. The graphic mark made by a dancer in space is the most lively way I can make a mark.
DW Do you feel your work is repeatable?
SD Dance is an ephemeral art form. The movement inhabits the air in front of you for the split second it takes. The thought of repeating it endlessly is less exciting than making that one glimmer particular and precious. I find that rarity special and extraordinary.
But one reason why dance has less resonance than music or art is that we don't have a sturdy history. Until film and photography, dance lived through music or literature written about it. From my point of view no performance should be like another. Revisiting a work for performance each day should be a chance to go through the piece with all the accuracy that one's experience can bring to it, but with a totally open plan about what it might produce. I am trying to devise a way of having a blueprint of ideas, structures and forms, that could convey what the original cast went through that another cast could experience, though they may arrive in a different way.
DW The particularity of one moment in a dance can appear to change the fixed characteristics of a space. The last time I saw Merce Cunningham perform with his company, he galvanized the entire volume of the theatre. Moving stiffly in a diagonal line from back right to front left, he made me feel as if the performance was no longer 'over there'; we inhabited the same space.
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|Title Annotation:||Royal Academy of Arts|
|Publication:||The Architectural Review|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2004|
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