As an architect and a dancer, I can’t even begin to explain how excited I was about the Architecture of Dance series by the New York City Ballet. (I started dancing when I was 6, did ballet for a year, moved onto Classical Indian dance, which I did for years, and am now back to ballet at my gym). It’s the kind of excitement I had when I heard about the ‘Playing the Building’ installation by David Byrne (I also played piano for years).
Each aspect of the New Martins Ballet (Mirage) I saw last night gave me the sense that it was perfect-the choreography, the costumes, and the set design by Calatrava. Perfect and beautiful. And clean. A modern choreography obviously called for a new approach to costume and set design. The ballet showed off technique and there was symbiosis between the choreography, costume and set; the choreography made lines that resembled the set, the costumes’ black lines echoed the lines of the set, and the set mimicked lines created by dance. And perhaps this is why I wasn’t fully satisfied-the focus was on the line, and the other dimensions seemed just incidental. What I missed was any sense of narrative and specificity. I understand that this was not a traditional tale, and that it was concept-driven, but it is still possible to get a sense of narrative in even the most post-post-modern form of dance. This is neither the fault of Martins nor Calatrava alone. Perhaps it is the fault of their lines of communication. And as a result, the lines of communication between the dancers and the set were difficult to read.
In the video they showed as an introduction to the ballet, I caught a glimpse of a mockup of the set with a ballerina dancing between two sides of the set. I waited and waited to see this in real time, but the actual set never allowed for this. This is where the narrative could have been. I am not sure why this was changed. This may have been beyond Calatrava’s control, and perhaps even Martin’s, but the set floated above the dancers the whole time. It was aloof, like a roof. It was shelter. It changed, and the changes were spectacular, but I can’t truly think of it as a set, nor even as a backdrop. I think of it as sculpture, art installation. It lacked specificity, and I think it could have been installed in any space with a high ceiling. It was beautiful and perfect, right down to its symmetry, but dance itself is rarely symmetrical. The symmetrical set and asymmetrical dancers were at odds with each other.
Calatrava is undoubtedly a great sculptor, engineer, architect etc. And yes, he does look at the human body, gestures, lines of movement to inspire his work. But maybe this is where the relationship between the body and his architecture stops. Perhaps he is not that interested in how bodies interact with his environments, and is more interested in the making of object. This is not an uncommon approach, but how much can the body in space be subordinated?
As an architect, designer and artist, I was excited by the cleanness of the production, the spectactular set, the contemporary costumes, and the beautiful lighting effect at the end. As a dancer, I would have wanted more. I would want to inhabit, play with, be part of or set against it. But it would have eluded me in all its spectacular, aloof, perfect beauty.