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“Take four steps up to garden! Then jump down to courtyard!”. Well, those are rather strange orders for anyone who does not understand theatrical language! This vocabulary, which is used to inform dancers of the way they should move across the stage, is part of an organization of the scenic space that appeared during the Renaissance period and was adopted during the reign of Louis XIV. Lines and plans are organized around a favoured area: the centre, in front of which sits the person for whom the show is first and foremost performed – the king – and where the main actions take place. At the beginning of the 20th century, the scenic space became the subject of research work and experimentation. In 1911, Nijinsky created Afternoon of a Foehn as an animated bas-relief. In the 1970s, the American postmodern movement, which called performance codes into question decreed that dance could be performed anywhere: in lofts, parks, on the roofs of buildings... Highly unusual for spectators! Spaces and places, therefore, condition the relationship between the public and the performers and have a role to play in the artistic, social and cultural intentions of dance. By proposing other surfaces, other configurations, they also offer an opportunity to explore the myriad of possibilities of the body in movement.
La belle dame - Francine Lancelot
During the era of ballet de cour (court ballet), ancestor of classical ballet, the performance, which combined poetry, music and dance, took place in the centre of large function rooms with one or several rows of gallery seating along three sides where spectators would sit. The royal family, seated on a podium in the centre of the audience, would discover a succession of “appearances” or choreographed sequences. The different “appearances” in the Belle dame highlight the geometrical figures and combinations that the choreography sketches on the ground.
Le lac des cygnes - Marius Petipa
With the arrival of permanent structures, based on the “Italian-style” model of a scene, dance moved from the courtyard to the theatre and adopted a centrestage scenic set-up. As well as offering an opportunity to develop the use of machinery, the scenic set-up also influenced ballet codes and rules. The en-dehors, which requires the femurs to rotate outwards and which facilitates lateral movements, the organization of movements around the axial plan and the enduringness of the centre of gravity is based on and incorporates the rules of perspective. The splendour of collective choreography relies as such on the way the plans, lines and axes of the space are perceived by the spectators. Marius Petipa excelled in this register, as illustrated in this extract from Act II of Lac des cygnes.
Roaratorio - Merce Cunningham
Merce Cunningham who focused on Einstein’s theory of relativity, rejected the idea of a single perspective and of the centre as the spot where the gaze is held. The scenic space is free from any form of hierarchy and takes on another dimensionality: the dancers are no longer evolve through a centrestage-type relationship but are able to turn their back to the public. They can also remain sitting down, on the stage, before beginning to dance. Because, as Cunningham said, “a motionless body takes up just as much space as a body that moves”.
Sanctum et Imago – Alwin Nikolaïs
Like Cunningham, Alwin Nikolaïs chose multipolarity. Lighting, décors, costumes and choreography work hand-in-hand to produce a theatre of abstraction. Nikolaïs’ exploration of the scenographic possibilities of the space was accompanied by specific work on the body. Because to inhabit the space on the stage, dancers need to inhabit the space within themselves.
Collection particulière - Maria Donata d'Urso
Maria Donata d'Urso split the space horizontally into two parts by a thick plate of glass comprising longitudinal slits. The dancer, who is positioned between the two edges, has to organize their supports in order to remain suspended. By using this ground that is raised and divided, the choreographer develop a reflection on the body, its structure and its surface.
Défilé - Régine Chopinot
Through this piece of work Régine Chopinot reinvents a burlesque-style fashion show. Restricted by the dimensions of the podium and its set-up, right in the middle of the spectators, seated along the three sides, just like in a “real fashion show”, Chopinot’s choreography focuses on back and forth movements, between front-facing and at-a-distance. Marc Caro produced a video clip of the performance which, thanks to the camera, highlights even more the impact of the narrow depth produced by the scenic set-up.
Défilé de la Biennale
Inaugurated in 1996, the défilé (parade) is in keeping with the popular tradition of street performances. It is an intense moment of sharing, working together, which helps strengthen social links.
Desa Kela Patra
In Bali, performances take place outdoors, like here in front of the Sebatu village temple. The area used for dancing is based on the set-up of the xylophone orchestra, known as Gamelan. The dancers, surrounded by musicians and inspired by their rhythms, perform one of the treasures of Balinese choreography, once reserved only for the court of kings and princes.
Stronger - Wilkie Branson
Public places, stations, woodland, stairways. Fields, construction sites, museums... A myriad of places open to highly unusual choreographic experiences spearheaded by contemporary choreographers. In the video-dance Stronger, the ground decorated with a forest, scattered with leaves and roots, offers unstable supports for the break-dance figures. The rolling landscape, obstructed by rocks and trees, offers the two B. Boys, unusual supports, irregular heights and depths, which induce the choreography to blend climbing and sliding.
In more depth
Books or chapters
CHRISTOUT, Marie-Françoise. Le ballet de cour de Louis XIV : 1643-1672 mises en scène. Paris : Centre National de la Danse, 2005. 292 p. (Nouvelle librairie de la danse).
CLIDIERE, Sylvie, DE MORANT, Alix. Extérieur danse : essai sur la danse dans l'espace public [Livre DVD]. Paris : Editions L'Entretemps / HorsLesMurs, 2009. 191 p. (Carnets de rue).
CUNNINGHAM, Merce. « L'espace, le temps et la danse », in VAUGHAN, David, LUCIONI, Denise (trad.). Merce Cunningham, Un demi-siècle de danse. Paris : Plume, 1997. 315 p.
DUROSOIR, Georgie. Les ballets de la cour de France au XVII° siècle ou les fantaisies et les splendeurs du baroque. Genève : Papillon, 2004. 160 p. (Mélophiles).
Reviews and articles
BOISSIERE, Anne. « Appia et les espaces rythmiques », in Les carnets du paysage, 2007, n°13 & 14, Comme une danse, Arles, Actes Sud : l’école Nationale Supérieure du Paysage, p. 64-79.
BRUNON, Hervé. « Lieux scéniques et chorégraphie du parcours : les jardins de Versailles et la danse sous Louis XIV », in Les carnets du paysage, 2007, n°13 & 14, Comme une danse, Arles, Actes Sud et l’École Nationale Supérieure du Paysage, p. 81-101.
KUYPERS, Patricia. « Réinventer l'espace scénique : entretien avec Lucinda Childs », in Nouvelles de danse n° 42/43 : Danse et architecture, Bruxelles, Contredanse, 2000.
SAILLARD, Olivier. (dir.), PINASA, Delphine. Le défilé : Jean-Paul Gaultier, Régine Chopinot. Catalogue d’exposition (Moulins, Centre National du costume de scène et de la scénographie, décembre 2007 – mai 2008). Paris : Musée des Arts Décoratifs, 2007. 256 p.
« Une nuit balinaise ». Programme de spectacle, Troupe des artistes de Sebatu (Bali), Biennale de la danse, 14 - 16 septembre 2012.
Anne Décoret-Ahiha is an anthropologist of dance, doctor of Paris 8 University. Speaker, trainer and consultant, she develops proposals around dance as an educational resource and designs participatory processes mobilizing corporeality. She animates the "Warming up of the spectator" of la Maison de la Danse.
Texts and bibliography selection
Maison de la Danse
The "Scenic space" Course was launched thanks the support of General Secretariat of Ministries and Coordination of Cultural Policies for Innovation.