The last time the New York City Ballet worked with an architect was in 1981, when George Balanchine asked Philip Johnson to create a set resembling a crystalline palace for the Tchaikovsky Festival. Johnson was perhaps a natural choice, having already designed the company’s headquarters, the State Theater (now the David H. Koch Theater), to the choreographer’s specifications. More than 25 years later, the company’s ballet master in chief, Peter Martins, has revived Balanchine’s idea, this time working with Santiago Calatrava on backdrops for the new ballets in the spring 2010 season.
According to Martins, the Spanish starchitect, who identifies himself as a painter and sculptor as much as an architect, seemed perfectly suited to the job. But Calatrava needed a little convincing to take on five stage sets when he had never designed one. “I mean, I had a lot of ques-tions,” he says of his first meeting with Martins. “I was like, Why did they ask me?” The famously charming ballet master soon allayed his fears, and a follow-up brainstorming session—during which the designer made sketches and finger-painted with a bottle of Martins’s expensive red wine—led to discussions with each of the five choreographers: Melissa Barak, Mauro Bigonzetti, Benjamin Millepied, Christopher Wheeldon, and Martins himself. The resulting sets, which range from painted landscapes to large mobiles, showcase Calatrava’s artistic range and seem to deliver on Martins’s expectations.
As with any pas des deux, the architect-choreographer collaborations involved leaps of faith on both sides. Calatrava adapted his original concepts to meet the choreographers’ visions, and the choreographers repositioned their dancers to accommodate the scenery. Still, some of the sets read like faithful translations of the architect’s language, including one for Benjamin Millepied’s ballet, Why am I not where you are, which features a fanlike structure that slowly bends and torques as dancers pass through its center arch. The sculptural backdrop resembles a moving, distorted version of a Calatrava suspension bridge.
The architect soon learned the differences between designing for the confines of the stage and building a full-scale, gravity-defying structure. For the ballets, his sets needed to be dramatic but not so much that they would upstage the dancers; and unlike some of his engineering masterpieces, they had to be simple enough to be installed and dismantled during an intermission. Nonetheless, poetic connections between the two endeavors can be drawn. “I could compare it with doing a museum for Rodin sculptures,” the architect says. “The difference is that Rodin sculptures are static, and here they are dancing. That is very beautiful.”