Friday, 8 June 2012

First thoughts: From Landscape to Portrait commission

With the start of rehearsals looming, it seems like a good moment to try to bring together some of my key thoughts about my forthcoming site-specific dance commission for the Annenberg Courtyard at the Royal Academy of Arts.

Architect Chris Wilkinson has created a new installation entitled From Landscape to Portrait for the courtyard, and I will be creating a piece for 10 dancers that responds to that work for free performances on the 29th June (7.30pm) and the 1st July (3.30pm). The performances are part of the London Festival of Architecture (LFA) 2012, and will therefore also respond to the overarching theme for the LFA this year, which is ‘the playful city’.

Key words for my planning so far include:


One of the first things I thought of (or heard) when I saw Chris’ work fully installed in the courtyard was music. For me the progression of the installation feels like a musical scale, balanced and melodic, but it also feels fugal, as the frames ‘chase’ each other through the space.

Following up on this initial thought, I am listening to a lot of Bach’s music, particularly his Brandenburg Concertos as well as his Violin Concertos in A Minor and E Major (thanks to MBKG dancer Morgan Cloud for the top tip about this one!), Concerto for Violin, Oboe and Strings in D Minor and Concerto for 2 Violins, Strings and Continuo in D Minor.

I’m also investigating the pealing of bells, and the various methods used in bell-ringing, which my Dad is explaining to me! I am wondering whether I can construct choreographic ‘methods’ (also like scores) to create a particular visual or qualitative effect, starting with the 10 dancers aligned along the spine of the installation (in the gaps between the frames) and gradually working outwards from the spine into the courtyard space.

Here I’m concerned about getting bogged down in the creation of the methods, so I think it might sometimes be a case of coming up with criteria for a certain kind of effect I want to create, and then handing over to the dancers to experiment in order to see what works. Being able to hear the peal is different to seeing it, so I’m wary about sticking too rigidly to mathematical structures and will follow my instincts first and foremost. Some things that are becoming clear to me about this way of working are:
  • There need to be clear (i.e. recognisable to the people watching) ’foundation-lines’ or phrases that keep coming back, so the audience sees the resolution of a phrase in the same way they would register it by hearing the complete cadence in music
  • I would expect the foundation-line to occur at the beginning and end of a phrase but there could also be partial returns to that original phrase throughout, in order to prevent the pattern of movement from ever falling into an expected rhythm (like incomplete cadences)
  • We just need to find out what these ‘foundation-lines’ look like, and how we move in between them, therefore building up an overall structure for the progression of what I will call the ‘pealing section’ of the new commission


I think that integration of eye contact (between dancers and between dancers and audience) and the accumulation of the potentially quite complex methods described above, eventually spilling out into the courtyard space and moving more around the installation, will contribute to the overall playfulness of the new work.

I’ve also been thinking about portraiture and the act of framing the body as a source for movement material, particularly researching the work of Sir Joshua Reynolds, which seems appropriate as he was the first President of the Royal Academy of Arts and his statue is also in the Annenberg Courtyard. 

Sir Joshua Reynolds: Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse, 1784
As well as Reynolds’ portraits, I’ve also been looking at the portraiture of Antony van Dyck, Pompeo Batoni and John Singer Sargent, trying to find the poses and postures that have the greatest sense of movement and could become a reference for the dancers’ vocabulary in the new commission. 

John Singer Sargent: Spanish Dancer, 1879-82. A preparatory oil study for the main figure in El Jaleo.
John Singer Sargent: Portrait of Nancy Astor, 1909
Although I’ve only done limited research, what I do know about Reynolds’ idealised or ‘Grand Style’ seems to align with the movement material that looks most effective through the frames of Chris’ installation. For example:
  • a sense of ornamentation or virtuosity (there is something rich and indulgent about it, although to me it also seems refined, measured, tightly controlled)
  • displaying the surfaces of the body
  • expanding outwards into the space to the point of hyper-extension
The movement created with these postures in mind has a certain mischievousness or haughtiness which is also playful, and there may also be the opportunity to integrate poses that we observe in the RA courtyard itself, watching passers-by and particularly watching the way in which they are framed as they pause to interact with the new installation.


Before seeing the installation in place, looking at the technical drawings, I thought of Muybridge’s photography and therefore also of Siobhan Davies’ Birdsong and the patterns within her more recent collection of commissioned works, ROTOR

I am thinking about developing intricate patterns or progressions of movement within the From Landscape to Portrait commission, in terms of individual bodies (e.g. focussing on the articulacy of the spine), within individual sections of the work and within the work as a whole.

Other developmental words or thoughts include:
  • rotation e.g. movements from horizontal to vertical and back again
  • ripple-effect
  • reflecting
  • ricochet
Ultimately I want to develop these intricate progressions through contact work, therefore exploring chains of bodies or the act of bridging* Piccadilly and the gallery itself, which is essentially what Chris’ work does (and this ‘bridge’ may also cause many visitors to pause or deviate from their expected route to sit on the bench on one side of the installation).

Hopefully we will be able to find ways of threading bodies through the frames of the installation, even as they move higher from the ground. I want to seed this idea somehow in the ‘pealing’ section, so there is an exchange of places in the ‘methods’ (over, under and through the large frames) which can gradually become more elevated with the support of other dancers.

*Chris Wilkinson has designed many bridges including the Bridge of Aspiration connecting the Royal Ballet School with the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

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