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Ellis Woodman on architecture and dance

Ellis Woodman

Over the centuries, dance has had a direct bearing on architectural development

One particularly intriguing aspect of the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale was director Rem Koolhaas’s decision to schedule the event at the same time as the city’s international festival of dance. Koolhaas’s exhibit in the Arsenale’s Corderie was interspersed with dancers in rehearsal: a perhaps surprising inclusion given his stated mission of addressing the fundamental conditions of the architectural discipline.

And yet, of course, the dancer’s instrument − the human body − is also the ultimate determinant of architectural form. Koolhaas’s interest in that shared disciplinary foundation is long-held. I remember hearing him interview the dancer Michael Clark at the OMA-designed Serpentine pavilion in 2006. He opened the conversation by asking (a somewhat flummoxed) Clark about what changes he had noticed the body undergo since the emergence of gym attendance as a mainstream activity.

And if we look back to the early decades of the 20th century, it is clear that dance had a direct and intriguing bearing on the development of modern architecture. The influence of eurhythmics − a form of dance in which large groups of performers employ synchronised gymnastic movement to articulate a musical score − is well documented. Both Le Corbusier’s brother, Albert, and Mies’s wife, Ada, were students at the institute that the founder of the technique, Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, established in the German garden suburb of Hellerau in 1910. The two young architects were regular visitors and the progressive, back-to-nature culture of the school community made a lasting impression on them.

They also learnt from Dalcroze’s aesthetic concerns. Le Corbusier made his Voyage d’Orient immediately after staying at Hellerau in 1911. Where the sketchbooks that he brought back from previous expeditions are dominated by descriptions of picturesque urban ensembles, the Voyage d’Orient sketches show a new concern for geometry, repetition and rhythm − qualities to which he had become attuned at Hellerau and which he found in rich supply in the classical sites he visited in Greece. ‘Hellerau represented the starting point for the artistic evolution of our epoch,’ he wrote years later. The development from the synchronised movement of Dalcroze’s dancers to the coordinated array of cruciform towers of Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse is direct.

Le Corbusier’s love of dance is clear from his 1925 photo-essay ‘Milestones’ in the magazine L’Esprit Nouveau. The photos were intended to show the development of a modern aesthetic sensibility over the course of the preceding 25 years. Images relating to dance are much in evidence, many showing the work of the Ballet Russes: Picasso’s set for The Three- Cornered Hat; Léon Bakst’s costume design; the great ballerina, Tamara Karsavina.

Le Corbusier was particularly attracted to the Ballet Russes’s cultivated savagery in works such as The Rite of Spring and Les Noces and in the following decades his output was characterised by a remarkably similar melding of the futuristic and the archaic. Given that interest it is hardly surprising that he developed an infatuation with the most iconic performer of 1920s Paris: the dancer and cabaret singer, Josephine Baker. With abundant near-naked, black flesh and choreography which drew on the syncopated rhythms of American jazz, Baker’s 1925 Revue Nègre proved a sensation. ‘These shows are a mixture of skyscraper and jungle elements … ultramodern and ultraprimitive’, stated one review of the time.

Le Corbusier first met Baker at sea, returning from South America. He recorded in his diary that he burst into tears when he heard her sing Baby. A flirtation ensued which resulted in sketches of Baker including a number of a starkly erotic nature. Her interest in him was cooler. ‘What a shame you’re an architect, you would have made a great partner,’ she is reported to have said.

A few years later an equally smitten Adolf Loos designed a house for Baker with a glass-sided swimming pool. The project reads as little short of the temple of a goddess which may account for Baker’s decision not to build it. Instead she bought a castle and filled it with a ‘rainbow tribe’ of adopted children, each from a different country. Muses have an irritating tendency to have minds of their own − a word of warning, perhaps, for any architect who falls under the spell of a dancer at Koolhaas’s biennale.

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