Architects Santiago Calatrava and Herzog & de Meuron design for the stage

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2010; E05

At the spring gala of the New York City Ballet, ballet master in chief Peter Martins appeared onstage to lift a glass of aquavit in honor of architect Santiago Calatrava. The Spanish architect renowned for his sleek white forms, which combine masterly engineering and a daring sculptural sensibility, was not only the guest of honor but also the set designer for five new ballets in the coming weeks. City Ballet has dubbed its spring season, which runs through June 27, "Architecture of Dance: New Choreography and Music Festival."

Architects working in the theater is not unheard of, but it isn't common, either. Jerome Sirlin, an architect by training, is by now an established stage designer, working extensively in opera. The architectural vision has been essential to the illusionism of stage design since Andrea Palladio first designed a purpose-built modern theater.

But it is a rarity for rich and famous architects such as Calatrava, who works in a jet-set world of big budgets and tight schedules, to spend serious time designing for the ephemeral forms of theater, dance or opera.

Which makes it all the more surprising that earlier this season, New Yorkers were to see yet another stage production -- of Verdi's early opera "Attila" -- designed by the buzzy architecture team of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, the Swiss visionaries who created the iconic and much-admired "Bird's Nest" stadium for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

The first of Calatrava's sets, a white, fan-shaped arch form, was unveiled at the April 29 gala. Its tightly stretched cords of rope or metal were reminiscent of Calatrava's bridges, the structural form that made him famous and for many critics still defines his best work. The set was in a single piece, around which the young choreographer (and City Ballet principal dancer) Benjamin Millepied created his work "Why am I not where you are."

In an interview after the premiere, Calatrava explained that he was asked to design his forms long before he had any inkling of what shape the dance would take. In short, the ballets were created around his ideas.

And alas, they looked like it. Millepied's ballet dealt with a young man's initiation into some kind of colorful but closed society. Its emotional scope felt thoroughly CW, a tele-trivial world of adolescent desire, teenage alienation and petty squabbles among loose posses of cool kids. Above it, Calatrava's arching form soared quietly, calmly, classically, as if in a different universe from the human drama below. The stage set felt a bit like a space-age version of an old temple ruin, or what Keats once called a "foster-child of Silence and slow Time."

Solving a problem

But if Calatrava's form had the look and feel of something high-tech and even higher design, the concept was perhaps less radical than what Herzog and de Meuron did for the Met's run of "Attila," which ended March 27. On the surface, it seems the architects produced something traditional, a realistic stage design that captured in bold strokes the Hun-hastened decay of ancient Rome and the forests of Europe on the brink of the Dark Ages.

If Calatrava created a single, concentrated form for Millepied's ballet, Herzog and de Meuron used the Met's vast theatrical resources to produce a textured world defined down to the details. Broken concrete and twisted rebar suggested Rome on the ropes; roots, limbs, ferns and grass were articulated with naturalistic precision.

But Herzog and de Meuron are not the sort of designers who read the score and simply deliver pretty pictures, made to order. In a brilliant stroke, they divorced the naturalistic fantasy of the sets from the human drama of the opera, by placing the singers in thin, horizontal bands of theatrical space separate from the scenography.

And thus they solved a problem that vexes almost every production at the Met, where the proscenium soars more than 100 feet above the stage. Every singer, no matter how big, is dwarfed by the Met. Producing human-scaled spaces for the singers often results in underwhelming sets. Herzog and de Meuron managed to create a grandly scaled wall of scenery, pushed to the front of the stage, beneath which the human drama played out at a more manageable scale.

If you can't split the difference between grandeur and intimacy, then why not allow them to exist together? The sets became elaborate illustrations to the drama unfolding in another dimension. The audience was given the responsibility of joining these two different visions in the imagination, like the melding of images in an old stereoscope.

Calatrava's set was more an act of sculpture than architecture, while Herzog and de Meuron's work on "Attila" was a more classical "architectural intervention" -- a fashionable term for a very particular form of design work. The Swiss architects began with a precise set of conditions -- Verdi's score, the Met's size, the needs of the singers -- and solved a perplexing problem. They dealt with an opera as if it were an architectural preservation issue, a building no longer adequate to the crowds it attracts or the function it must perform.

It's striking how often architectural interventions involve the literal slicing open of a building -- the surgical creation of new space and light and passageways for human traffic. Herzog and de Meuron did something similar with Verdi's opera: They cut open spaces for real human drama within the romantic and overscaled world of a creaky libretto and a contrived landscape.

Full creative freedom

Calatrava, on the other hand, was given what architects (all too often) dream of: full freedom to realize a singular idea. It was striking, but its power waned quickly over the course of the ballet, fading like a designer cologne. And in many ways, it emphasized the very frustrations that push old-guard companies, such as the Met and City Ballet, into the arms of architects in hopes of changing the game. Calatrava's appealing construct only emphasized the emptiness of the ballet it supported, the vitiation of the language of classical ballet that Millepied struggled to reanimate.

After opening night, Calatrava said something remarkable about his experience with the company. He enjoyed the collaboration, of course. But he was also deeply impressed by the old-fashioned narrative and symbolic aspects of ballet. In other words, he seemed to have engaged with the very things that many critics would say he has banished from his architectural work, which is consistently white, orderly and abstract. The world of ballet enticed him with things that are messy, ornamental, human and histrionic. When asked if this will affect his architecture, he said yes. That could be a radical change in direction for the architect.

The benefit to Calatrava, intellectually and creatively, is clear. It's not so clear what City Ballet gets, other than the cachet of hosting a brand-name architect for a few weeks. One might say that Calatrava is working in an absorbent art form -- architecture -- that is still vital, still engaged with the public, still capable of taking in new stimuli and shocks.

Ballet and opera remain immensely powerful forms of expression, but their creative prime has passed and they will no longer be spongelike forms that can harness new cultural currents. It's best not to expect too much from any outsider brought in to revolutionize a centuries-old discipline. A deft intervention, now and then, can open up new visions. But these will be case by case, work by work. Architects will never solve the more basic problem: that some arts simply grow old and resistant to the world around them.

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