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Dance And Design

 An article by Jeannette Andersen


Introduction by Carsten Jörgensen

In the book “The Dancing Column” the architect and architect historian Joseph Rykwert refers to a poem by George Herbert (1593 – 1633 an English poet and priest), who describes the relation between the human body and architecture.

 What house more stately hath there been,

Or can be, then is Man?

Man is all symmetrie,

Full of proportions, one limbe to another,

                  And all to all the world besides:

                  Each part may call the farthest, brother:

And head with foot hath private amitie,

                                  And both with moons and tides.


The Dancing Column which is a must read on “Order in Architecture” was in my mind a late night when my wife Bodil and Jeannette returned from a ballet evening in Zürich Opera House. My wife had with gratification been able to accompany Jeannette, who writes critics on ballet for international ballet magazines and holds a deep and long passion for ballet and dance. Jeannette is able to engage even me - a no ballet enthusiast - in that world.

If columns can dance and man - according to an old poem - is all symmetry…and head with foot hath private amitie and both with moons and tides… it might be obvious that such relations could be found between dance and design as well.

This nightly talk is now more than a year ago, and in the following you will find Jeannette’s interesting and surprising answer to my imaginary dancing columns or in Jeannette’s terms “dancing cars”! 

It is a must read for designers and dancers like the Dancing Column for architects! 

About Jeannette Andersen

Jeannette Andersen started her career as a dance writer in New York City where she lived for six years. During that time, she covered the dance and art scene for first Berlingske Tidende, the largest newspaper in Copenhagen, Denmark, and then Jyllands Posten. On leaving New York she went to live in Munich where she also began to do radio programs on art and interviews for Deutsche Welle, Dänemark Redaktion and Danmarks Radio, the largest public radio station in Denmark. She has contributed to various dance magazines and publications.   

Her passion for dance found an outlet when she, almost twenty years ago, began to write for Dancing Times, London, the world’s oldest dance magazine. Besides writing reviews, features and doing interviews with people from the dance world, she has a keen interest in how dance is reflected in all aspects of society or society in dance; how dance interacts with the other art forms, and dance as communication. 

Danish born, she holds a master’s degree in Danish and English Language and Literature from the university of Copenhagen, Denmark and a bachelor’s degree in The Art of Writing from Syddansk University in Kolding, Denmark.

She lives in Munich, Germany


 Dance and Design

A ballerina in a black tutu dances an intimate duet with a hip-hopper on a table, T70 by the German furniture producer Hülsta. Eight silver Renault cars perform a crash-test in the desert intricately choreographed ending with a bow as if on stage. At a gala dinner a young woman leaves her table to dart through a theatre like a madwoman mixing modern dance and James Bond-action to present the perfume Kenzo World.

Within the last decades a lot of design branding has turned to storytelling as a means of selling products. During the same time the definition of dance has broadened to such an extent that the foremost names in the avantgarde argue that everything that moves is dance. Branding, telling stories, and the dancing body are now often coupled in a fruitful relationship. Products, a table or a perfume like those in the videos mentioned above, are associated with dancers’ bodies, beautiful and highly artistic. Inanimate objects, such as cars, are personified and turned into autonomous dancers without drivers. Both areas profit from this fusion. Design becomes humanized. When we buy the Hülsta T70 table it entails the enigmatic meeting between two people with perfect bodies. Dance becomes part of a context outside performance, making it visible and accessible to a much larger audience.

At first glance these two disparate fields do not seem to have much in common.  Dance is an ephemeral artform. When you leave a performance all that is left is the memory of it. Whereas when you buy a design object, e.g. Raoul François Larche’s Loïe Fuller lamp, you retain a physical thing, which you can see and touch whenever you like, and use according to your needs. Loïe Fuller (1862-1929) was American and one of the pioneers of modern dance.

Raoul François Larche Loïe Fuller, The Dancer c. 1900

But every dance performance, be it classical or modern, is like any piece of design, an intricate amalgam of many elements combined to evoke feelings, perhaps telling stories, and it is also a statement about the time in which it was created. Both the choreographer and the designer work with forms and lines in space and time choosing their ideal material with care. For the designer it could be steel, wood, glass or perhaps plastics. For the choreographer it is primarily the dancer, a classical trained ballet dancer, a dancer trained in one of the many modern dance styles or for example a hip-hopper. Each style brings out a different type of body, with its distinct mode of expression. Additional choices could be costumes, music, sets and choice of performance location, a theatre, a factory hall, or any public space.


Swan Lake On The Fontanka River Ballet

Swan Lake On The Fontanka River Ballet

One of the most famous classical ballets in the world is Swan Lake created for the Bolshoi Ballet in 1877 by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. It is an intricately designed universe in which an unhappy prince flees his duties, encounters women turned into swans by an evil sorcerer, and deception wins over love. In most versions, the world of the prince pertains to reality, a garden and a ballroom in a castle. His fellow courtiers are dressed in costumes suggestive of the peerage from an unspecified period before 1900. The Swans in tutus and feathery headbands appear in a mysterious wood-like landscape. The characters’ emotions are magnified by Tchaikovsky’s evocative music. Wrapped in fairy-tale it epitomizes the Romantic ideas and way of thinking.

Modern ballets are also statements about their time. William Forsythe, one of the trailblazers of modern ballet today, created the piece One Flat Thing reproduced (2000). He was inspired by Robert Falcon Scott’s expeditions to the South Pole at the beginning of the 20th century. But you would never guess if you did not know. Forsythe has taken the story element out of his ballet and created a world where dancers in street clothes move with breakneck speed on, under and between metal tables. These are as hard and unforgiving as icebergs. A foot hitting a table in a high kick could mean a broken toe. Thom Willems’ soundscape suggests trickling water, tension between moving earth masses, soul-soothing tinkling and aggressive noise. The modern fairy-tale has become hard, real and abstract.

Lyon Opera Ballet in Forsythe’s One Flat Thing reproduced (2010)

Lyon Opera Ballet in Forsythe’s One Flat Thing reproduced (2010)

The same applies to design objects. Larche’s lamp is a testimony to the Art Nouveau style with its curvilinear lines and motifs inspired by nature. And Henning Koppel’s jug The Swan - to stay with the swan image – is an example of the clear, unadorned lines prevalent during the middle of the 20th century. Dance and design offer us a way to project our longings, dreams and idiosyncrasies. Whether we love or hate these ballets and designs depends on what we bring along, our emotional, social, cultural and political heritage.

Henning Koppel’s The Swan (1956)

Since the advent in the late 19th century of what we today call modern dance, design and dance have been closely connected. Loïe Fuller (1862-1928), one of the first persons to break with the classical ballet tradition, invented a dance form that was a fusion of movement and design. She dressed herself in long sheets of silk under which she extended her arms with bamboo rods, and she was one of the first people to use electric light on stage as part of the illusions she created. When she moved, these elements made her look like a butterfly in flight or an orchid. Standing on a glass plate illuminated from below she looked as if on fire.

In 1900 The Sketch, a British illustrated weekly journal (1893-1959) wrote about her, “Violet, orange, purple and mauve succeeded in rapid succession until a rich, deep dominated the dancer, and she became, for one brief moment, a living rose with palpitating heart and flying leaves.” For many of her contemporaries she was a great inspiration. Several sculptures, drawings, paintings and films were made of her and at least two lamps, the above mentioned by the artist Raoul François Larche in 1900 where the fabric floats like a cloud over her head, and one by Lucien Alliot from the beginning of the 20th century, in which the fabric creates an arch over her head. Around the same time in 1912 Paul Scheurich created a series of five Russian dancers for porcelain manufactory Meissen. They were his first and most successful works for the company. In this way dance became part of and the theme for design objects.

Loïe Fuller in her Serpentine Dance (1892)

 Loïe Fuller in her Serpentine Dance (1892)

One of the most famous collaborations between a choreographer and a designer was that of Martha Graham (1894-1991), who created a new modern dance style with her contraction-release technique and the artist and designer, Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), who created the sets for 18 of her dances. Graham often used sets as an extension of her anatomy, and Noguchi was interested in the interactive aspects of his creations. In 1946 Graham made a piece about Medea titled Cave of the Heart. Noguchi created a bronze, spiky cage-like structure balanced on a snake, which has been compared to an exploding sun. It was an allusion to Medea being the granddaughter of Helios, the sun, to whom she returns after killing her two children and the princess for whom her husband, Jason, wanted to leave her. In Medea’s vengeance solo the dancer steps out of the structure, which fits her like a gown, dances and then returns into it, moving with it on her journey back to the sun. It is an example of how dance and design fuse to create a work of art.

Martha Graham in Cave of the Heart, (1946), photographer unknown,

Martha Graham in Cave of the Heart, (1946), photographer unknown,

Today this kind of collaboration also takes place. In 2013 the choreographer, Richard Siegal created Unitxt for the Bavarian State Ballet in Munich. He worked together with the industrial designer, Konstantin Grcic, who created bodices with special handles for the women’s costumes. When held by the male dancers the handles enabled the women to balance far beyond the normal range of gravity, or the men could lift the women from a curled-up position and carry them off-stage like duffel bags. With this the design became part of the dance as a means of creating new ways of moving.

Zuzana Zahradniková and Léonard Engel from the Bavarian State Ballet in Richard Siegal‘s Unitxt (2013) Foto © Wilfried Hösl

These are just a few examples out of many of how dance and design have interacted and continue to interact. Many fashion designers from Coco Chanel to Yves Saint Laurent to Viktor and Rolf have also created costumes for ballet. In 2015 the fashion designer, Hussein Chalayan, even made a dance, Gravity Fatigue, with the help of choreographer Damien Jalet, using fabric as part of the expression.

Hussein Chalayan, Gravity Fatigue (2015) Foto © Alastair Muir

Hussein Chalayan, Gravity Fatigue (2015) Foto © Alastair Muir

The dancing body has lately become an integral part of branding and many other social expressions. An extensive analysis of why this is so shall not be attempted here, but a few explanations shall be offered. The social media now available for everybody has made it easier to make and post videos. The body is no longer just for work. In our post-industrialized world, it has also achieved an aesthetic value. Many people care for their bodies by going to the fitness studio, by doing dance-exercise classes, etc. which makes it easier for them to identify with the body of the dancer as in the Kenzo World perfume ad. Another factor is that strict genre definitions have broken down, and a fusion is happening between dance and design, design and art, dance and art, high art and commercialism, the list is endless. 

The crucial difference as mentioned at the beginning is that dance cannot be owned or bought as a piece of merchandise, whereas a design object is meant to be bought and owned. But both forms in their own way work on an emotional level. They trigger our fantasies, evoke feelings, hopes and longings, which are based on our cultural heritage, personal experiences and idiosyncrasies. The Kenzo ad made me think of James Bond, implicitly including all his attributes: he is the good guy, always conquering the evil forces, he is invincible, etc. So, if I buy this perfume, I buy the whole packet of hopes and attributes.

This is one of the innate mechanisms of branding or any other kind of advertising. It speaks to our never satisfied longings and cravings. But buying will only bring momentary satisfaction, so we will have to buy more. You can argue about using an artform for commercial purposes. But it adds a new dimension to inanimate objects and it makes dance visible and accessible.

Jeannette Andersen, Munich, Germany














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