Steven Holl and Jessica Lang’s “Tesseracts of Time” Explores the Relationship Between Architecture and Dance

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”

This well-known quote, most often attributed to comedian Martin Mull, compares attempting to explain music’s complex auditory intricacies with words to trying to interpret architectural forms through the motion of the human body – the underlying implication, of course, that it’s fruitless. 

But take a closer inspection of the analogy. Music and writing may be media for disparate senses, but, at their height, dance and architecture share a realm of space and light; both perform as formal exercises that relate to the human proportion of the body. Must dancing about architecture truly be an exercise in futility?

A year after premiering at the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial, last week Steven Holl and dance choreographer Jessica Lang’s “Tesseracts of Time” made its New York debut at the City Center mainstage. The 21-minute performance, designed as a part of Holl’s ‘Explorations of IN’ project, explores the relationship between performance and environment through four phases, which the designers liken to the passing of the four seasons.

Courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

“It’s a dance for architecture. Where light and movement and the passage of another artist, the choreography moving through the architectonic becomes the total experience,” explained Holl in an interview with Archinect. “I feel that architecture—the movement of a body through space—that’s the instrument of the measurement, space. And you can’t really photograph it.”

Perhaps that elusivity was the inspiration for the performance’s title. A geometric impossibility, the tesseract is the four-dimensional counterpart to the cube – whereas a cube is made up of 6 squares folded to create a volume, a tesseract consists of six cubes folded in on one another. Not only does Holl reject the notion that architecture can be captured in 2-dimensions, he argues that it can only properly be explained in 4-dimensions, through the addition of time.

Courtesy of Steven Holl Architects
Courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

“Both Architecture and dance share a passion for space and light in time; however, they are on opposite ends of the spectrum with respect to time,” explain the designers. “Architecture is one of the arts of longest duration, while the realization of a dance piece can be a quick process and the work disappears as the performance of it unfolds. Here the two merge in a compression of time and space.”

This congruity is expressed in the performance’s four “seasons,” each of which has been choreographed to respond to different types of architecture: Under the ground, In the ground, On the ground, and Over the ground.

Courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

In the first section, ‘UNDER,’ the stage is partially bisected by a suspended screen upon which softly-light versions of Holl’s signature carved surfaces are projected. Dressed in all black, the dancers stretch, swim and sprawl on either side of the screen, laying out when their path is obstructed by its presence. Their movements are linear as they are driven by the David Lang’s percussive score.

As UNDER transitions to ‘IN,’ the screen is extended to reach the ground, transforming the projected architecture from object into environment. Virtual dancers begin to occupy all corners of the projected space, interacting with and typically upstaging their real-life counterparts, who remain tied to floor of the stage. Despite the perspectival depth created by scaling the figures’ size, the movements in this section are distinctly 2-dimensional – the dancers remaining relatively stationary as they stretch their appendages and bow their bodies to match the shapes of the architecture around them. 

Courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

The third section, ‘ON,’ introduces 3-dimensional objects onto the stage: three 12-foot-tall ‘Tesseract Fragments.’ The dancers themselves provide the 4th dimension as they move around and on top of the white fabric structures, obscuring, bending and distorting their forms. The choreography is at its most playful here, allowing the objects to be used as slides, shelters or terrain.

The three objects are slowly lifted into the air, the final section, ‘OVER,’ begins. Now, color is introduced for the first time, in both the setting and in the dancer’s clothing. The objects become background elements, hanging over the stage the way a setting sun hangs in the sky. The music, too, settles into a hypnotic hum, while the dancers’ movements become fluid and air bound, with poses resembling a joyous worship.

The performance ends in darkness, setting the stage for the cycle to begin again.

Courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

From his Nelson Atkins Museum extension to the upcoming Hunters Point Community Library (serendipitously located next to Jessica Lang’s company offices), Steven Holl’s work often exudes a performative quality. Whether it’s the allocation of extra space for grand circulatory spaces or the way his carved concrete surfaces capture and reflect light, Holl’s architectural elements place a particular concern with an individual's movement through space and time. So perhaps it's no coincidence that the architectural language he has developed is so suitable for choreography.

At the inauguration of Steven Holl Architects’ Visual Arts Building at the University of Iowa this past weekend, a group of Iowa Dance students put on a building-interpretive performance. They hugged the building’s Guggenheim-esque railings, stretched their bodies over the edge, and cast paper planes to flutter down into the building’s atrium, instructing visitors as to how objects and bodies could occupy its space. It was dance – but it sure looked a lot like architecture.

Jessica Lang Dance is now touring the country performing a variety of pieces from their repertoire. “Tesseracts of Time” will next be shown November 10-12 in Seattle and December 9 in Dallas. For the full schedule, visit their website, here.

News and images via Steven Holl Architects.

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Cite: Patrick Lynch. "Steven Holl and Jessica Lang’s “Tesseracts of Time” Explores the Relationship Between Architecture and Dance" 11 Oct 2016. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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