Dance and Architecture
Labyrinth and Birdsong

Opening of the Biennale di Venezia 2014
Opening of the Biennale di Venezia 2014 | Photo (detail): © Ettore Bellini

In their function of structuring and thereby actually creating spaces, art and dance are closely connected.
Yet in the interplay of bodies, movement and space, dance not only designs architecture itself. Increasingly, it engages with existing structural conditions by intervening corporeally in their architectonic configuration.

It was Daedalus, the architect in Greek mythology, who once built a labyrinth for the Cretan King Minos in order to imprison the dangerous monster, the Minotaur. However, as Homer reports in his Iliad, Daedalus also created another labyrinth that is said to have served as a dance space for the King’s daughter Ariadne. Hence the labyrinth is at once architectonic construction and dance. It engages with both dance and space at the same time, whereby its walls on the dance floor were apparently formed by the chorus, i.e. the bodies of the chorus of dancers in a round dance. The connection between body and motion on the one hand and space and architecture on the other was thus already inscribed into dance in mythology.

Geometric space and corporeal architecture

In the course of its development, classical ballet, which emerged from the courtly dance of the Renaissance, came to view the upright body itself as an architectonic structure. With geometric forms and figures, which recomposed and reshaped the body in dimension and proportion, ballet conceptualised an ideal corporeal architecture, which, in turn, connected to the laws of the Euclidian geometric space surrounding it. Modern dance then played a significant role in subjecting this body-space architecture to a critical, analytical scrutiny. Oskar Schlemmer, for instance, examined in his Triadisches Ballett (1922) as well as in his later Bauhaus dances the laws of cubic space with its invisible stereometric network of lines to which the human body was connected. For Rudolf von Laban the harmonious relationships of the human body to space - choreutics, an idea developed by the scientist Ernst Häckel – actually flowed through crystalline paths. The plastic form which the body produces by its naturally developing movements is that of an icosahedron, which forms the space surrounding the dancer, shaping his/her so-called kinesphere. This icosahedron, in turn, now has the form of an organic crystal, which appears to Laban as a natural, cosmetic construction prevailing over both the dancing body as well as the entirety of organic nature.

Investigating architecture with the body

In the 1960s, dancers manifested a distinct aversion to the laws of mathematics (Schlemmer) or of nature (Laban) and started experimenting with the urban architecture that surrounded them and in which they lived. Hence their interest no longer focussed on abstract spatial laws, which dance movement is in a privileged position to demonstrate, but they devoted themselves in their dance-choreographic experiments to architecture as a lifeworld orientation and human habitat. In 1970, in her piece Man Walking Down the Side of a Building Trisha Brown had a dancer suspended on a cable walk down the side of a building, tilting the horizontal into the vertical and thus also overturning our spatial orientation. In her Roof Piece from 1973 she stationed dancers on a series of rooftops in the New York district of Soho. Placed at such a distance that they were just able to see one another, the American choreographer investigated the relationship of proximity and distance and the possibilities and limitations of human communication. A few years previously, in her piece Street Dance (1964), Lucinda Childs had relocated the performance venue to the street while the spectators looked down on the event from a window. An audio tape commented on the unfolding action in the street canyons of New York. In Germany, the Berlin choreographer Sasha Waltz, combining modern and post-modern, frequently explored empty museums or theatre buildings in her series Dialoge. As in 2008 in the Neues Museum in Berlin, in 1999 she had already explored with her company the niches, corners, walls and spaces of Daniel Libeskind’s symbolically charged architecture. Infused by the atmosphere of the rooms, bodies and architecture almost melt into one another in Waltz’s experiments.

Architecture in motion

Lucinda Child’s piece can certainly be regarded as a blueprint for the numerous experiments in the public space, which, long before the radio ballets of the group Ligna, urge people in an urban space to perform sudden, synchronised movements and to attract and focus attention. This discourse of dance with urban architecture also enables choreography, seen as a structuring of space by bodies, to emancipate itself from dance as energetic movement. The borders between dance, theatre and performance become permeable, new art forms and architectures of public space emerge.

In his ballet work William Forsythe has also deployed Daniel Libeskind’s utopian architectural drawings, which served as an improvisation basis for the dancers of his company in 1990 for the piece Limbs Theorem, in order to overturn classical ballet architecture. He goes one step further in his most recent works, the choreographic objects and performance installations. While the objects that Forsythe builds are themselves static, yet potential movement is stored within them. Their inherent principles of movement encourage the spectators addressing the “choreographed” object – whether physically or mentally – to start moving themselves.

For the architecture biennale in Venice, he has now developed for the series “Performing Architecture” the acoustic performance Performing Architecture the acoustic performance Birds, Bonn 1964, which consists of birdcalls. The room in the German pavilion, in which the architects Alex Lehnerer and Savvas Ciriacidis have recreated the “Kanzler Bungalow” in Bonn, is transformed by the almost immaterial, ephemeral birdcalls. In this space within a space a group of voice imitators performs a live concert of birdsong. William Forsythe is thus far removed from an understanding of choreography as the invention of steps. Instead, he evinces a general spatial mentation that is oriented to movements of the most diverse kind. By placing the performers in the exterior space of the bungalow, who then edge forward from the non-existent garden between the bungalow and the walls of the German pavilion into the interior spaces, the fixed structural architecture is virtually suspended and becomes alive. The activity of listening and the search for the sources of sound inspire not only the space but also the perception of the visitors to dance.
Birds, Bonn 1964 
by William Forsythe 
Acoustic Performance und Installation (Live recorded version) 
German Pavilion / Gardini of the Biennale in Venice 

A production for the Bungalow Germania in the German Pavilion of the 14. Architecture Exhibition of the Biennale di Venezia and for Performing Architecture, a programme of Goethe-Institut. 
In co-operation with The Forsythe Company and the German Pavilion Supported by the Auswärtiges Amt, the BHF Bank Stiftung and the Kulturfonds Frankfurt RheinMain.