Clare Melhuish explores the collaborative qualities of dance and architecture in light of Herzog & de Meuron's Laban Centre Stirling win. Do both parties share an empathetic affinity, or are they performing on different stages?
The Royal Academy of Arts organised a pair of fora on dance and architecture last month, which seemed an appropriate subject for discussion following the triumphant Stirling Prize victory of Herzog & de Meuron's building for the Laban Centre, especially in light of reports that the continuing focus on the building has caused some discontent within the dancing community there. By all accounts, there is a feeling among some Labanites that the striking architectural quality of their new centre has done little or nothing to raise awareness of the activities that take place inside it. It has also been suggested that the design of the interior, notably the theatrical and transparent quality of the relationships between volumes and spaces, leading to an intense visibility, may have caused problems in inhabiting the building for students and staff alike. Which leads one to ask how far dancers and architects really empathise with each others' outlook and goals. There have been several instances of dancers collaborating with architects on performance pieces over the years, although collaborations between choreographers and artists are slightly more common, and it has been suggested that dancers and architects share an affinity in terms of spatial awareness and sensitivity to line. But, when it comes to buildings, perhaps that notional 'beautiful friendship' is just as liable to turn as fraught and combative as in any other clientarchitect relationship.
If anything, the RA debate exposed differences in outlook rather than similarities. In fact, choreographer Jonathan Burrows, who has been touring a duet for two seated people moving only their arms and hands, admitted that his interest in participating in the dialogue had stemmed principally from his lack of interest in architecture. But what he went on to say revealed exactly why architects might, and often do, have an interest in dance or choreography. In particular, he recounted an experience of talking on a cordless phone to his colleague and realising that, as he talked, he was pacing the room, performing 'a brand new dance which is a by-product of the cordless phone'. He linked the idea of these spontaneous 'duets around the world' to the concept of 'pedestrian movement', current in the 1960s and '70s, which was all about using everyday movement as the inspiration for dance anchored in real places 'away from the illusion of the theatre'. A person, a dancer (and 'we are all dancers'), becomes 'a living dynamo at the heart of the space'.
For an architect, or theorist of architecture, these should be exciting propositions, central to the concept of design as a process of representing, but also directing, patterns and evolving patterns of movement generated by dynamic human actors. Architect Kengo Kuma, in his presentation of some of his designs for no theatres in Japan, demonstrated the relationship between diagonality and horizontality in Japanese architecture and the prevalence of diagonality and horizontality in dance and everyday movement.
These cultural characteristics represent a discernible contrast with Western emphases on verticality, axiality and perspective in both classical dance and architecture. Burrows complains that buildings are frustrating because they 'remain fixed in their ways', and he would probably be interested to know that some architects have experimented with building forms that have a kinetic and transformative character, such as Kas Oosterhuis and ONL, with their networked and responsive architecture. But, really, recognising a connection beween dance and architecture is not about making 'dancing architecture' but, rather, understanding static built form as a record, or memory map, of human movement stored within it, and rendered explicit each time the building is used. It is the people, the inhabitants, who recreate the 'dance' each time, rather than the building itself.
Architecture has historically played a central role in civic society, defining and communicating social structures and the rituals, mapped out in movement, of public and private life. It does so to a lesser extent today, when all but the most significant buildings are viewed as the sum of their parts, rather than as the expression of an over-arching concept and, also, when 'invisible' technology has taken over so many of the processes of social communication.
Dance, too, has progressed from being, as Dr Simon Goldhill put it, 'a social and moral obligation' and an 'embodiment of cultural tradition' in ancient Greece to an expression of more individual emotions today. Then, it explicitly 'articulated the space of public ritual'. Today, it may still do so, but in a more covert, behind the scenes sort of way. On the one hand, a lot of modern dance peformance may appear, to the inexperienced viewer, to be more concerned with private, internalised dialogues than public debate, leaving audiences uncomfortable and unsure how to react. On the other, popular manifestations of dance, such as rave culture, mentioned by Burrows, are evidently expressive of a sense of collective identity, while at the same time emphasising the autonomy of each individual (insofar as each person has reponsibility and control over his or her own movements) within that overall form.
As choreographer Shobana Jaysingh put it, Indian classical dance performed in India 'is creating a huge public building, the conventions of which are already in the public arena'. But she came to feel uncomfortable presenting this dance form in the regional theatres of Britain, because it was incomprehensible to audiences. Indian classical dance is inspired by the dancing figure of Shiva, as 'pattern in space' - but also, space in time.
Jaysingh claims that 'the signature of choreography is not so much the way it uses space, but the way it carves up time', and that this is something architecture 'does no do'.
However, architecture experienced through movement, as a sequence of spaces, should do exactly that.
One of the problems of the Laban Centre, perhaps, is that it has been overly determined by a notion of dance and, ultimately itself, as spectacle, rather than as a collective enactment of social experience in space and time. The envelope of the building is very much a billboard - a vertical plane, the flat translucent surface enlivened with rainbow colours, which stand up in the blighted postindustrial landscape of Deptford like an illuminated advertisement for a new product promising a significant improvement in quality of life (and it has certainly raised Laban's profile as a cultural institution).
Inside, the theme of display is achieved through transparency and theatrical devices for framing and lighting, contrasting with the warren of intimate spaces that was the centre's old building. Yet, at the same time, the life of the new Laban Centre seems to be internalised, the architecture driven less by a sense of physical movement and performativity in the public realm than by a concern for optical effect that asserts the power and presence of the building itself, and its impact on the landscape, and, indirectly, the institution which it represents.
As far as Burrows is concerned, 'dances in buildings are always overwhelmed by them' - but 'that's what a big building is meant to do'. Jaysingh refers to dance itself as an edifice replete with public meaning. Kengo Kuma seems clear that, at least in the realm of no theatre design, the building itself should be scarcely distinguishable from the dance form, but, in no, those forms have a clarity and knowable quality, which perhaps is not the case in contemporary Western dance. If there is any conclusion to be drawn at this point, it would be that the common ground between dance and architecture, if there is one, is a contested territory that has still to be staked out and appropriated in different ways.