IT WAS quite a different Washington experience for Lockheed Martin Corporation. Engineers from the aerospace giant, builder of the controversial $200 million F-22 fighter plane, had come to town not to confer at the Pentagon but to help make an abstract sculpture light enough to be manipulated in a dance performance.
By the time the project was finished, three divisions of Lockheed and two other firms were involved in constructing the 24-foot-long, 9-foot-high sculpture. Designed by local artist John Dreyfuss, it will be the centerpiece of "Gandhara: East West Passage." The production, choreographed by Dana Tai Soon Burgess, will open the Kennedy Center's "Something New" series this weekend.
"Gandhara," which explores Alexander the Great's experiences conquering a part of Pakistan, was conceived as a collaboration among Burgess, Dreyfuss and famed lighting designer Jennifer Tipton. It's a continuation of their work last year on a similar sculpture-inspired dance, "Helix."
The defense industry -- in need of some good publicity these days -- was a rather unexpected partner, arising out of a casual encounter between Dreyfuss and some of the engineers. But the artists weren't the only ones pleasantly surprised by the result.
"This was one of the only projects I've ever worked on that was directed by technical requirements only," says Richard Bott of Lockheed Martin Skunk Works. "It was very simple -- just copy a form and make it lightweight. It's very different from building an F-22, where you build the outer shell and then spend 10 years trying to stuff all the radios, bombs and oxygen bottles into it."
The sculpture, a clublike structure with a curvy, bulbous end narrowing to a long, pointed neck, was originally too fragile and heavy to move from Dreyfuss's studio. The Lockheed Martin engineers, together with Scaled Composites and SMX Corporation, crafted a hollow version out of carbon fiber, fiberglass and foam that weighs a mere 380 pounds. (Despite its aerodynamic pedigree, it never becomes airborne. The 10 dancers crawl on it and shove it around.)
"It was great to speak with engineers that are so artistic," Burgess says. "They work so far out of the box, and I think artists do, too, so we had a neat intersection."
He describes a couple of surprisingly loose "think tank" sessions in Dreyfuss's Georgetown studio, with everyone sitting around in jeans brainstorming, the military experts listening intently to the artists' talk of space, motivation and metaphor.
The engineers haven't loosened up too much, though. Asked what he was working on now, at his headquarters in the California desert, Bott demurs. Like all his projects -- except "Gandhara" -- it's classified.
"Ah, I wish I could tell you," he says. "It's a really neat shape, though."
GANDHARA: EAST WEST PASSAGE -- Friday at 7:30, Saturday at 2 and 7:30 and Sunday at 2 in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. $25. Call 202/467-4600 (TDD: 202/416-8524).