A Set Design That Moves

A Set Design That Moves

Every architect has a mental file of unusual client requests, but few, if any, have been asked to make a wall dance. Yet, in essence, that’s what San Francisco architect Christopher Haas created—not for a client, but for a collaborator, Alonzo King, the San-Francisco-based choreographer. For King’s LINES Ballet company’s spring season that premieres April 15-24 at the city’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Haas created a wall that performs,  but not as a soloist.

The set’s recycled cardboard walls, some 10-feet high and 32-feet wide, are pushed and pulled by the dancers. The performers also literally climb the walls. Playing off the classical pas de deux, the wall both supports and spotlights a male dancer (instead of a ballerina), who is suspended horizontally by the wall. At one of the most spellbinding moments, the wall practically overtakes a male soloist and then completely envelops the company.

Historically, sets created by architects for dance companies have been sculptural backdrops that may be sublime, but nevertheless static. Even the recent and much anticipated backdrops by Santiago Calatrava for the New York City Ballet and Herzog and de Meuron for the Metropolitan Opera fell into that category. So Haas—best known as the project architect behind Herzog and de Meuron’s de Young museum—was taking a huge leap.

This is the second time that Haas and King have worked together. They met in 2004 when Haas’ wife, Corinne, was a dancer in the company, and King was looking for sets for his “Before the Blues” production. Haas quickly answered the call, creating what he calls “simple, Donald Judd-looking boxes” out of copper and blackened copper scraps left over from the de Young, which had been lying around his studio.

“He did them so quickly, and we hadn’t had much dialogue,” said King. “I thought, if there was that much artistic sympathy when we hadn’t spoken, how interesting would it be if we had a real conversation?”

For this collaboration, that conversation between Haas and King began two years ago. Contrary to what you’d expect, the choreographer envisioned something large, heavy and architectonic and the architect wanted something that would respond to the dancers.

“I really wanted to do something where we could explore the intersection of architecture and movement and see how the two relate to each other. If you configure space in a particular way, how does that affect the dancer? If the dancer can change the space around them, what opportunities do they create for themselves? I was really looking at the relationship between the body and movement and the built environment in space,” said King.


Both ended up getting what they wanted. King got a sculptural backdrop and Haas got his movable, interactive set.

Haas created between 20 and 30 study models before ending up with a design that allows the walls to be manipulated into a variety of forms. About half of the cardboard planks—each about four feet long, eight inches wide and four inches tall—have a hole with two dowels and a rod going through them, enabling the walls to be folded. The rest of the planks have slots that run almost the whole length of the board, which allows the boards to hinge and the slotted pieces to slide through. The wall can expand to 50 feet wide and contract.

Prototypes were made from the cardboard alone. Since the walls are so manipulated by the dancers, they don’t wear well. So Haas sandwiched the cardboard between layers of 1/8-inch chipboard for added strength. Haas has also created another interactive set for this production: several thousand elastic cords attached at the top and bottom to aluminum tubes some 40 feet wide and 50 feet high. The intention is the same: the company “dances” with the cords. Haas chose recycled cardboard and elastic cord to illustrate the surprising beauty that can be found in such simple, light and inexpensive materials.

And while King may be the first choreographer Haas has worked with, Haas was not the first architectural collaborator for King, who’s made dances with Shaolin Monks, central African pygmy singers and a sextet of Moroccan musicians, among others. King worked with Frank Gehry for a set to accompany Wagner’s “Tannhauser” in 2004 until the funding fell through. King said some of the same ideas discussed with Gehry are being explored in these sets: “How do you manipulate energies? How do you get involved in risk taking? What shapes don’t move? What shapes move through space? When do you feel cloistered and protected and when do you feel imprisoned?”

For architects, Haas says its unusual to work in such a collaborative, changeable and organic fashion, in which changes may be made right up until the curtain rises.  “It’s very different from an architectural project where you have a very finite static result,” he says. “That’s a really interesting part of this—the allowance for architecture to change and the end user to change it.”