Monday, October 4, 2010

Architectural dance

Stephen Petronio stood at the edge of the roof at Whitney, leaned out, and balanced his body to a perfect horizontal position facing down. Then he started strolling down the wall as if he was walking on a horizontal surface. It was an awe-inspiring sight. The verticality of space was transformed into horizontality by the act of the performer. For a moment I felt like I was incepted in Cobb's Paris.

This was the re-enaction of dancer/choreographer Trisha Brown’s 1970 “Man Walking Down the Side of a Building,” as part of the "Off the Wall" show on her early works. One can say Trisha Brown's dances are very "architectural" because they display a particular interest in the movements of the body in relation to space. In a similar indoor piece "Walking On the Wall" (1971), dancers walk, jump, and run parallel to the floor along two intersecting walls of the gallery. The dance defies gravity and hence challenges our perception of orientation. The observed space in the room spins like a rolling dice. Up and down, left and right all become relative.

These performances remind me of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, when champion gymnast Li Ning ran along the rim of the stadium to light the Olympic cauldron. In this theatrical finale, the inner wall of the roof was unfolded into a long scroll showing the footsteps of the torch relay.

Li Ning ran on the inner rim of the Bird's Nest's roof

Space always exists, but the definition of space is through inhabitation. Spaces gain and alter their meanings from different user interactions. In a way, the design of architectural space is the choreography of user movements. Of course, architects can't foresee every possible use of the space they design. Creative "misuses" of space, like in the cases of Whitney and the Bird's Nest, usually cause surprising yet convincing effects.

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