The arts are important in the work of the renowned Spanish-born architect Santiago Calatrava. Known for buildings characterized by dramatic lines and sweeping movement, like the new transit hub at the World Trade Center, his structures include the Milwaukee Art Museum and opera houses in Tenerife and his hometown of Valencia. And in 2006, the Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrated Calatrava's gifts as a sculptor in the exhibition "Sculpture into Architecture."
But in his nearly three-decade career, stage design was an art that eluded him. "I never imagined I would be working with a ballet company," he says.
That changed last year with a call from Peter Martins, NYCB Ballet Master in Chief, inviting Calatrava to create stage designs for the Company's aptly titled Architecture of Dance: New Choreography and Music Festival, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. This spring, Calatrava's designs, "scenography" as he has come to refer to them, will appear in five new ballets, including those by Melissa Barak, Mauro Bigonzetti, Martins, Benjamin Millepied, and Christopher Wheeldon.
"The fact that this opportunity was so unexpected has made it even more wonderful," Calatrava says.
Though not a frequent occurrence, artistic collaboration between prominent architects and New York City Ballet is not unprecedented. In 1981, Philip Johnson, architect of the New York State Theater (now the David H. Koch Theater), and his associate John Burgee fashioned an "ingenious décor," as The New York Times called it, consisting of 3,600 pieces of Tenite butyrate plastic tubing that changed form with each ballet presented during the Company's two-week Tschaikovsky Festival.
Martins, a long-time admirer of Calatrava's buildings, had something similar in mind for the current season when he first met with the architect. But early in the design process it became clear that the architect would collaborate with each of the choreographers, creating singular works that reflected their individual visions, instead of one all-purpose piece. "I showed the choreographers my sculptures, and told them we could adapt what I had or even create something new, depending on what they wanted," Calatrava says. "Having a unique piece gives a personality to each ballet and is, perhaps, a little less rigid than having just one piece."
On a snowy February morning, Calatrava, dressed impeccably in a dark blazer and tie, visited the David H. Koch Theater to supervise the installation of the first of his scenic designs. A magnificent sunburst of disks bathed in gold leaf floated against a dark backdrop while to the side of the stage a technician fine-tuned the supple chords of a graceful white sculpture reminiscent of Apollo's lyre that were the early workings of a second design. Both pieces were constructed from materials designed for quick entrances and exits and safe storage when not in use.
"The idea of movement is present in this scenography," Calatrava says, explaining that the gold disks can telescope out or in, like a sunbeam, and the large white sculpture features pliable chords, allowing the structure to move nimbly around the stage.
The idea of movement informs much of Calatrava's architecture, making him ideally suited to work with a ballet company. "Calatrava buildings don't sit on the ground; they dance above it," architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote in The New Yorker. And writing in New York magazine, critic Mark Stevens declared, "He's nothing like form follows function. . . . He's theatrical. He loves movement."
Calatrava likes to cite similarities between architecture and dance, explaining that people once thought of architecture as frozen music. The human body, the vital component in dance, has inspired architects since antiquity, including Michelangelo, he says. "Architecture is a wrapping for the human body, and dance is the finest expression of the body."
Yet architecture and dance share a significant difference, Calatrava notes; the former is permanent, the latter ephemeral. "In my profession, I create things that remain, so it was a unique experience to make something for dance, which is about an instant," he says. Calatrava's affinity for the arts began at an early age. Though he holds degrees in architecture and civil engineering and a PhD in mechanics, he also attended art school and his first ambition was to be a painter or sculptor. Over the years, his sketchbook and sculpting materials have never been far from his side. "I can't begin to tell you how many thousands of times I have drawn people who seem to be dancing," he says.
Indeed, Calatrava's abilities as a painter and draftsman proved invaluable in his work with the Company. When Barak told him that a sculptural piece didn't go with the storyline of her ballet, he offered to paint watercolor backdrops. And a highlight of the Company's spring season catalog was Calatrava's eloquent life drawings and studies for sculptures that danced across the pages.
Calatrava's experience with NYCB has left him with admiration for the artists he has collaborated with and watched at work. "Working with artistic people is very special, especially when they are so professional," he says. "On one side is the freedom to create, but on the other is enormous discipline and rigor their profession demands. I've always admired the worlds of dance and music, and this was wonderful to see."
For more information on the Architecture of Dance: New Music and Choreography Festival and a complete performance schedule, visit nycballet.com.
Terry Trucco writes frequently about the arts and travel.