Unfreezing the Music
Cindy Coleman -- Interior Design, 3/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
dance and architecture have common bonds in form, structure, and composition. The two generally part ways, however, on the subject of movement. Dancers are mobile, and architecture, as Goethe is said to have remarked, is frozen music. The challenge for choreographer John Jasperse and architect Ammar Eloueini in their collaboration on Jasperse's traveling dance performance California was to demonstrate how these two disciplines can unite over the one subject that usually divides them.
Eloueini, who chairs the Digital Media Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is the founder and principal of a growing practice, Digit-all Studio. Using digital media, he reinterprets static design and architecture into dynamic forms. "I'm interested in the relationship that time and movement have with architecture," says the architect, whose previous projects include an Issey Miyake store in Berlin.
For California, a sociopolitical allegory, Eloueini redefined conventional perceptions of a stage set by designing a three-dimensional, kitelike canopy that hovers and dips over the stage. Composed of 34 panels connected by plastic zip ties, it continually reshapes itself as it moves with the dancers, who integrate the structure into their own movements in surprising ways.
After Eloueini spent a weekend observing Jasperse's dance company rehearsing in Lyon, France, the two, along with lighting designer Joe Levasseur, collaborated on the set, which functions more as an interactive prop than as a mere backdrop. "We experimented with structures that could morph over time without having to be over-engineered," Eloueini notes.
Eloueini's team began working in the summer of 2003, only three months before the premiere at the Festival International de Danse, in Cannes, France. In addition to artistic considerations, they also had to determine logistics, such as how the set would be disassembled and shipped around the world given post–September 11 cargo restrictions.
While Jasperse and his company were in residence at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Eloueini and Jasperse met frequently to review small-scale models and computer images of the design. "Once the concept was established, it was time to see and feel the object and its movement in full scale," recalls the architect.
Since a full-scale mock-up using the structure's actual materials wasn't in the budget, Eloueini purchased inexpensive corrugated plastic and, with several rolls of packing tape, built a prototype. But it proved disappointing at first. "The dancers treated it like a precious object," he says. They danced around it and through it, but not with it. After hours of discussion and demonstration, the dancers, no longer afraid of crushing the creation, returned with new ambition. They began dismantling the structure and improvising, moving and reshaping it. Gradually, it became a living part of the dance company.
The structure is made of lightweight clear polycarbonate panels that capture and reflect light. Measuring 25 by 10 feet when assembled, its three-dimensional geometry unfolds (with the help of a software tool) to create two-dimensional shapes that are scored, cut, and reassembled into the performance-ready form. The dancers manipulate the canopy in two ways: with ropes attached to the panels and strung through a rigging system connected to the ceiling grid, and with handheld leaf blowers.
"The true success is the dancers' response," Eloueini says of the set, which weighs less than 100 pounds, dismantles in less than 30 minutes, and fits into a pair of 4-foot-square shipping containers. Having traveled to nine cities worldwide, including New York and now Chicago, it's a practical success, too.