Designing Dance And The Dancer In The Twentieth Century
Table of Contents


My effort here is to look at the evolution of dance and its design in the twentieth century through a few key examples. The following illustrations offer much to consider not only with regard to the sets, props, and treatment of theatrical space, but also with respect to the dancers themselves—as the actors within these truly dynamic spaces, they must be considered in any assessment of the scenography, as must the movements by which they shape the space and the highly conceptual processes by which these are evolved. In each of the instances herein described, the choreographer and/or designer develops a complex and unique means of thinking about and approaching questions of spatial presentation, as well as orienting dancers with regard to or within that space. In so doing, each respective creator inevitably broadens the horizons of the future of the art.

In the realm of dance, Diaghilev’s name recurrently rises to the fore as an innovator, with his Ballets Russes changing the direction of twentieth-century choreography and design alike. The company began in 1909 with two seasons touring abroad, was formally founded as a permanent entity in 1911, and enjoyed twenty years of highly influential production that can be divided into three distinct periods.1 Diaghilev’s collaborations with numerous well-known and avant-garde artists for his sets and costumes had precedent in the operatic works of the railway millionaire Savva Mamontov of Moscow. This company, which Diaghilev and his collaborators saw when it toured to St. Petersburg, originated a conception of scenic design as an extension of the easel painting of those artists Mamontov commissioned. In his reaction against the dominant decorative styles of operatic design, as well as in the nationalistic tenor of his productions, Mamontov provided an important example for Diaghilev.2

In such an approach to theatrical design, both backdrops and costumes (and at times even stage curtains) essentially became a canvas for the artist. During the early years of the Ballets Russes, the painters employed were nearly all Russians; while Diaghilev encouraged choreographic experimentation and strove to incorporate new music, he remained comparatively restrained in terms of visual artistic representations.3 Yet even within these confines, the Ballets Russes explored contemporary innovation. In Natalia Goncharova and her husband Mikhail Larionov, Diaghilev promoted artists working in the “newly adventurous” and abstract Russian style of rayonism, a reaction against romanticism and naturalism (fig 1).4

The contemporary painting of Europe finally made inroads at the Ballets Russes in 1917 with the ballet Parade. It seems that in this production Diaghilev may have permitted more than the usual freedom to his collaborators.5 In this instance, these contributors were Picasso for the design, Cocteau for the scenario, Satie for the music, and Massine for the choreography. The production caused shock and scandal on several levels. All four of the aforementioned figures were devotees of mainstream popular entertainment, though Diaghilev himself was not, and various facets of the ballet drew from that arena (fig. 2). The characters in the ballet represented identifiable acts of the Parisian circus, cinema, and music hall; the two-man horse incorporated vaudeville; costume designs reflected, though did not precisely imitate, the attire of the music hall or circus; the score echoed a music hall style; and the original intention to announce each act with sounds and phrases was, I imagine, a reference to the barker of low-brow entertainment traditions.6 This “intrusion” into the formerly sanctified realm of ballet upset many, not only for its flaunting of conventional design but because of its anti-establishment underpinnings, deemed the more inappropriate during this period of war.7

Less scandalous to audiences for its relative familiarity, but nonetheless influential and innovative in the realm of ballet, was the incorporation of cubism into the design.8 The fragmented elements of the set and the disjointed perspectives they represent create a sense of interplay among the various planes of the stage, though their actual orientation remains largely flat (fig. 3). The incorporation of urban buildings refers to modern life, an allusion forming one of the production’s many corollaries with futurism.9

The characters of the Managers display costumes that could also be understood as either cubist or futurist constructions (fig. 4). With various mismatched components resembling industrial parts and skyscrapers, the costumes involve various shapes and parts situated in fluctuating relationships that are revealed as their inhabitants change angles. The characters’ seemingly natural actions (smoking a pipe, speaking into a megaphone, holding a booklet, walking with a cane) only serve to heighten their artificiality; in each instance, the upheld hand is a synthetic disc, while the human arm and hand protrude from the costumed torso at an awkward angle that would permit limited motion. In fact, the restrictions imposed by the costumes required choreographers to invent these dancers’ movements anew, and the characters’ appearance has been likened to puppets or animated scenery.10 Perhaps this reflected the mechanistic movement Filippo Marinetti outlined, which Giacomo Balla realized in a private performance for Diaghilev in 1914.11 The Managers spoke gibberish, much like Marinetti’s declamations, and the incorporation of modern sounds may have echoed Russolo’s Art of Noises.12 In each of these ways, the characters of the Managers situate Parade within the parameters of the forward-thinking Futurist movement.

The curtain, as well as these unusual costumes, upset audience expectations (fig. 5). Creating a false stage within the stage, subverting notions of perspective, and offering a scene with no bearing on the performance at hand, this creation of Picasso’s likewise creates uncertainty and incites the imagination.13 In all, as described in the program notes by Apollinaire, the efforts of Picasso and his fellow contributors in Parade “forged the alliance of painting and dance, of music and the plastic arts, which is the sign of a more complete art,” a Wagnerian “total theatre” in a modern guise.14

The rich inspirations of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes found a direct path of transmission to America in the person of George Balanchine. Prior to his arrival in the United States, Balanchine joined Diaghilev’s company and served as its last choreographer before its dissolution.15 In 1929, he choreographed one of its final productions, La Bal, which continued the company’s history of collaboration with great artists in its designs by Giorgio de’ Chirico (fig. 6).16 Yet, while Balanchine would in the future occasionally commission artists to design his own ballets, it is not for such an aesthetic that he became known.

Arguably one of the most influential twentieth-century choreographers, Balanchine worked with several companies before founding the School of American Ballet in 1934 and Ballet Society in 1946, which two years later became the New York City Ballet.17 Balanchine’s methods and training revolutionized the canon of classical ballet technique and transformed the general public’s expectations for the medium. He revised and evolved new exercises to develop in his dancers unprecedented speed, agility, and active use of space. He also introduced distinctive variations on existing movements, and established new types of movement readily recognizable as his creation.18 He was no less instrumental in devising new means of presentation in ballet. Firstly, he promoted a particular “type” of dancer, particularly with regard to females. To this day, an especially lithe, long-limbed, and youthful dancer conjures associations with Balanchine’s ideal, an aesthetic choice that affected the overall visual impression of his pieces.19 Secondly, his focus on the particulars of technique was evident not only in his approach to choreography and teaching, but also in the minimalist designs of his ballets. Balanchine wrote that “the visual spectacle, not the story, is the essential element of the ballet,” but for him “spectacle” did not necessarily mean ornate costumes or trimmings.20 While the New York City Ballet, then as now, retained traditional and elaborately staged works in its repertoire, Balanchine’s own pieces were frequently staged in a stripped down environment that permitted little detraction from the bodies he placed there. Moreover, the dancers frequently wore little more than practice attire, with ladies appearing in leotards and tights and men in leggings and close-fitting t-shirts. Balanchine thus rendered the dancers themselves the design of the ballet, as sculptural elements offering a purity of visual and technical form unimpeded by decorative encumbrances on their figures or even within view of the audience.

This Spartan or “neoclassical” style is well-illustrated in Apollo, one of Balanchine’s earliest choreographic contributions; in fact, the Ballets Russes first performed it in Paris in 1928.21 A comparison between the designs of the original production and that popularized by the New York City Ballet is instructive in demonstrating the originality of the latter. For the Ballets Russes, the painter André Bouchant provided a curtain depicting a natural landscape with trees, a large vase of flowers, and a few figures seemingly incongruous with the mythical story of the ballet (fig. 7). Yet their clothing is said to have inspired the costumes the dancers wore as they performed in front of a set indicating the rough peaks of Mount Olympus. Terpsichore appears in a tutu with a tucked bodice referencing neoclassical drapery and accessorized by a Grecian belt. Apollo dons a belted tunic and sandals lacing up his shins, gold like the close-fitting wig he wore (fig. 8).22

When premiered by the New York City Ballet in 1957, dancers instead wore practice clothes: the muses white leotard and skirts, and Apollo the familiar black leggings, white ballet slippers and socks, and a single concession to the Grecian setting of the ballet in his draped white top (vid. 1). Here the blue expanses of the floor and backcloth conjure an ethereal setting, as does the unsupported staircase that floats into the heavens. However, scenery was entirely omitted from 1979 onward, and a newer staging shows the four dancers on a marley floor in front of a simple black backcloth (vid. 2).23 While Balanchine’s ballerinas are a far cry from the robotic creatures envisioned by some of the futurists, his fleet of impeccably trained dancers nevertheless embodies a different mode of mechanization, becoming with their precision-driven and essentialized vocabulary of motion a corps of automata.

As Balanchine revised and revolutionized the language of classical ballet, Martha Graham established an alternative method of training. She urged her students to investigate how various emotional states affected their bodies and to recognize, interpret, and reproduce those responses. Rather than subordinate the body to the mind, she privileged a form of dance that gave primacy to the body itself and strove for the ultimate self-expression.24 This is not to say, however, that her training methods eschewed the internalization of a specific technique. While originally her choreographic practice and her classes were not distinguishable as such, which is to say her technical language and her choreography developed in tandem, in later life a recognizable vocabulary emerged that over time was institutionalized.25 Yet her aim was not formula or routine, but rather the full freedom of creativity made attainable through the process of strict discipline.26 Her piece Lamentation showcases the magnificent emotional capacities she propounded. Neither helped nor heeded by extensive design intervention, the dancer sits on a simple, plain bench (vid. 3).27 The choice of costume serves to heighten the extraordinary passion of the performance. Described by Graham in a 1976 interview as a “tube of fabric,” she relates it to “stretching inside your own skin,” and explains through an anecdote how this performance piece conveys the universality of grief. Fairly encapsulated within this garment that extends over her body and head, the dancer rends and stretches the material to create a tensile, tactile, external manifestation of the emotion she embodies.

Lamentation serves as a forceful demonstration of the distinct philosophical and psychological foundation of Graham’s particular conception of movement. According to her beliefs, dance is a self-actualizing expression that renders visible the otherwise hidden interior worlds of the soul, revelatory of a universal humanity that had roots in the primal, spiritual, and ritualistic. In her explorations of this mythic realm she found a kindred spirit and productive collaborator in the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, with whom she realized twenty-two productions over a period of thirty-one years.28 This artistic partnership differed importantly from those of Diaghilev in that Noguchi was a sculptor. As such, in these works he considers the entirety of the theatrical space and provides for it in three dimensions. Dancers not only move around, but in or on top of, his scenographic elements. Graham in 1968 described how in Noguchi’s designs “everything was stripped to essentials rather than being merely decorative. Everything he does means something. Whatever he did in those sets, he did as a Zen garden does it, back to the fundamental of life, of ritual.”29 Quite in keeping with Graham’s symbolic and metaphorical interests, each component of the set had a connotative and functional reason for being. That Noguchi and Graham achieved an unprecedented degree of integration between the set and choreography, to the extent that the sets often looked like the movements and vice versa, is often remarked upon.30 According to Noguchi, the mythical sensibility for which both creators strove could only be realized through such interaction. He explains that, “…dance adds the movement of bodies in relation to form and space… There is joy in seeing sculpture come to life on the stage in its own world of timeless time. Then the very air becomes charged with meaning and emotion and form plays its integral part in the reenactment of ritual.”31

Cave of the Heart, premiered in 1946, has as its narrative the story of Medea, and serves as an excellent example of such statements. The characters, in diverse forms of Grecian-inspired dress, have at their behest several flat-topped stones upon which they can walk, a structure of cylindrical protuberances with which they interact in various ways, and a free-standing metal sculpture that seems to define the outline of a tree trunk with extending branches (vid. 4).32 This last interests me most as a supreme illustration of the interrelationship Graham and Noguchi engineered between dancers and set. Towards the end of the performance this tree-like element becomes a “dress” for Medea, a menacing fixture she appropriates after she commits murder and which becomes a visual and animated extension of the evil that resides within her (fig. 9).

While many seem to consider that no creators since Graham and Noguchi have managed to so fully correlate movement, bodies, and set, this in no way indicates a cessation of interest in the interaction between dancers and their environment. Pina Bausch explored this relationship in many of her pieces that, though like Graham’s represent an interest in psychology and the depth of emotion, differ in their explicit socio-political commentary, their emphasis on improvisation, and their unwillingness to perpetuate or evolve prescribed vocabularies of movement.33

Enmeshed in a floor covering of dead leaves, the two dancers onstage at the beginning of Bausch’s Bluebeard of 1977 enact a struggle representative of a discourse in many of her works concerning traditional gender roles, sex and sexuality, and what she describes as “man-woman relationships.”34 In Bluebeard, these visceral and violent movements and interactions might confuse or alarm the viewer, while the dead body weight adopted at times by both figures enhances the disquiet (vid. 5a). The relative emptiness of the room, containing a lone chair and a desk with a radio, compounds with the leaves to create an atmosphere of neglect, while the irregular stopping and starting of the recorded music increases the sense of unease. In her article on tanztheater, Susan Allene Manning rightly notes that Bausch’s performances can simultaneously both engage and alienate the audience.35

Later in the scene, the female dancer obsessively collects the leaves within the folds of her dress. After lifting her onto his lap like a puppet and then again placing her upright on the ground, her male counterpart watches in seeming dismay as she repeatedly pulls her hair over her face. The raw emotion exhibited onstage through recognizable motions that could often be executed even by audience members elicits empathy. However, the viewer does not know exactly with whom to sympathize or why, and I, for one, find that extremely unnerving. Much later in the piece, the main character wears multiple Victorian dresses that inhibit her movement, while a larger cast of paired men and women replicate (or share) on a grand scale the complicated interactions of the main figures (vid. 5b).

Humanity as a general focus of Bausch’s subject matter seems part of her reaction against the more formalistic tendencies of dance. In a 1978 interview, she notes a danger that “Everything has become routine and no one knows any longer why they’re using these movements. All that’s left is just a strange sort of vanity which is becoming more and more removed from actual people. And I believe that we ought to be getting closer to one another again.”36 In another interview, she discusses how she looks to natural, everyday movements as an inspiration to her creative process. She says, “…I will ask, ‘What do you do when you are very tender to another person?’… they shouldn’t act or something, just simply, what do you do when you are tender?… maybe I say ‘okay, think of six different things, just the fact’… and then I ask them to do what they do.”37 By incorporating such movements into her pieces, Bausch realizes a different path toward the universality of experience that Graham sought.

The approach of William Forsythe is fundamentally distinct from that of Bausch, though some of his techniques bring her works to mind. Like her, he encourages and integrates his dancers’ individual improvisations, and he too explores a use of space in which the traces of his dancers’ movements remain in materials covering the set (vid. 6). His site-specific installations further investigate the effect of a body’s motion on its immediate environment, made apparent to the eye through the physical elements of the set (vid. 7a, b). Yet Forsythe’s impetus comes from very different directions than that of Bausch. Though he pushes contemporary dance in new directions, he cites Balanchine as his paradigm.38 In a thought-provoking chapter on the linguistic complexities of Forsythe’s works, Jennifer Jackson suggests that the choreographer “straddles American formalism and European (especially German) dance theatre.”39 He also draws inspiration from the works of postmodern philosophers such as Derrida, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Foucault, and the structuralist Barthes, which he channels into an effort to recontextualize the language of dance—he talks of “speaking dance,” and refers to it as “a kind of Latin.”40 It is fitting, then, that Forsythe has developed his own grammar of dance that serves as a basis and framework for his company.

Forsythe builds on the space harmony theories of Rudolf Laban to construct his own alphabet of movement which, in some cases, actually involves the inscription of letters on the floor (vid. 8). Forsythe is explicit that he works from a foundation of ballet, but he and his company aim to explore the full possibilities of motion for the human body and to focus on that process rather than the end product, as is traditionally done. He created a non-balletic vocabulary of 135 movements that concentrate on the experience of the body in space, and he repeatedly describes these ideas with analogies to computers and programming.41 His Improvisational Technologies are therefore appropriately named, as is his use of a digital medium to elucidate his intent through graphic renderings superimposed on the film (vid. 9). In the “room wrecking” phase of one such video, the dancer with his motions creates furniture that, although invisible to the naked eye without the digital rendering, nonetheless constitutes a type of scenography. For all intents and purposes it is there on the stage, for the demonstrator proceeds to interact with, respond to, and be affected by those volumes he has crafted. In another of Forsythe’s works, the dancers utilize his vocabulary to dance on and around physical tables (vid. 10).

The difficulty of categorizing Forsythe’s work becomes yet more evident in some of his more complicated productions like Artifact that present fragmented amalgamations of “classical” ballet, abstract art, anachronistically costumed characters, and nonsensically repeated words (vid. 11). In this production, which again builds on (or out from) a more familiar balletic vocabulary, he orchestrates configurations in which the dancers form a sort of scenery around which the other dancers must move (vid. 12). Here he again incorporates the spoken word, this time intelligibly, and it is interesting that the woman’s script is at least somewhat a translation of the traditional balletic gestures she simultaneously uses. In an interview, Kathryn Bennetts, director of the Royal Flanders Ballet, explains that even within this more conventional type of work, Forsythe declines to discuss the narrative, and feels that the audience should “do a little work” and figure out the storyline themselves.42 In many of his ballets, Forsythe controls lighting and costume designs, writes the texts, and creates the music and sound effects.43 As an auteur, an experimenter with various media, and a crafter of nonsequential configurations of props and actors, his work seems quite in keeping with the likes of Richard Foreman and Robert Wilson.

Not so much an innovator in the vein of Forsythe but nevertheless a progressive force in contemporary ballet is Jiří Kylián, who became the artistic director of the Nederlands Dans Theater in 1977. He imbues the more familiar vocabulary of classical ballet not only with contemporary movements and steps, but also with social consciousness and a powerful exploration of human relationships. Like Bausch he investigates gender roles and sexuality, but he does so in a more accessible, beautiful, and even humorous way. In Bella Figura, each dancer wears a flowing red skirt with an exaggerated waist accentuated by the movements of their hips (vid. 13). As an audience member it is incredibly difficult to tell the male dancers from the female, allowing for a democratization of the cast that challenges gender norms. This equalization may counter frustration—some of the arm motions are powerful and aggressive, in one instance mimicking the tightening of a noose—while also referencing the traditional clothing of cultures in which men wear what we call skirts—Kylián espouses ethnic dances as a major source of inspiration.44

In a different manner, Kylián balances his male and female dancers in Petite Mort by clothing both in close-fitting, neutrally-toned garments (vid. 14). Though the woman is still primarily dependent on the man in each pas de deux, she no longer relies on him to defy gravity; she explores her own sense of weight, and he is affected by hers and does not pretend she embodies some ideal of lightness and perfection. Their interactions are more about just that, the relationships of their bodies to each other, than they are about showcasing a perfect female form. Sensual and visceral, the audience ponders the pair as corporeal beings rather than as characters or even individuals, and the formalistic attributes of the dance are hardly formal or sterile. This contact forms a key facet of Kylián’s work. He says, “I believe in relationships, in dialogue. Connections between people are really very important to me… And I believe that the strongest ties are between one person and another.”45

At times he also investigates the interactions between humans and objects. An interlude in Petite Mort involves several women who roll onto the stage freestanding black formal gowns that they then treat as partners. The eighteenth-century formal dresses, in contrast to the alternate costumes they wear that permit such beautiful freedom, seem to represent imprisonment. A dancer who performed this section of the work with the Boston Ballet explained, “It’s as if we are ambivalent about covering ourselves up. Then finally, we push them aside for good and break free—almost as if they’re partners we want to get rid of.”46 This section of the dance may well constitute one of many in which Kylián probes the female psyche. Describing his approach to ballet in general, Kylián explains that the deeper mental and emotional undertones constitute crucial components of his creations. He says, “Basically what I’m interested in is the essence of dance, music and light along with the psychological implications of the work.”47 The anthropomorphism of the costume as used here provides an interesting counterpoint to Bausch’s use of Victorian costumes in Bluebeard.

Kylián’s explorations into such larger weighty themes are not always so serious. In a humorous and even slapstick work also utilizing period costume, he outfits both male and female leads in mustaches and dresses, the wideness of which inhibits them from passing through the doorway (vid. 15). Both engage in the domestic pastime of cooking, making very physical—and audible—use of the props; the male character even stuffs the front of his dress with dough. This comical piece with its confusion of gender roles constitutes quite a different approach to such issues. Despite the blatant theatricality of this work, Kylián urges his company to dance for themselves and each other rather than for an audience. He says, “The result is a different kind of dance. For me the public may be there, but not necessarily.”48

Continuing with the intersection of dancers, props, and set pieces, Kylián’s L’Enfant et les Sortílèges of 1997 offers an intriguing study (vid. 16). In his introduction to the video, Kylián states that he would like the piece to evoke for the audience a long-lost children’s book, which seems to me an apt description of its visual elements.49 The work opens with a fantastical setting of bright colors, impressionistically painted planes, skewed angles, and, notably, a great oversized table. The infantile behavior of the protagonist child is the more emphasized by his size relative to his surroundings, which he vandalizes when he is punished for not completing his homework. From the clock to the teapot and even to elements of the wallpaper, the objects are literally brought to life by the dancers to retaliate against this maltreatment. Stylistic choice and characterization seem to affect the quality of their movements more than does the imposition of their attire—though the man wearing the teapot certainly has limited mobility in his arms—but the costumes themselves are incorporated as vital elements of the choreography. In a sense, we have returned full circle to the “animated sets,” the characters of the Managers in Parade, of eighty years earlier.

Over the trajectory of time presented in this paper, we have seen six examples of choreographers working with or as designers who have decisively approached quite individual concepts of the use of space. The relative placement and prominence of material and visual elements of the set, as well as lighting, comprise key components of the overall presentation. Yet in an essentially motion-based—as well as visual—medium, the dancers themselves become integral elements of considerations of design. Their corporeal appearances, their costumes, and their personal use of space become key, and so therefore does the methodology behind those particulars. As evidenced within these pages, the choreographers and designers described have no one set solution to approaching performance design, but all have clearly acted to expand the horizons of contemporary dance. As Kylián declares so clearly, the lifeblood of the artform is in its capacity for change and evolution: “National companies should realize they’re not national museums… We are responsible for the history of the future… We are responsible for the extraordinary contemporary achievements of today so our successors will not look at us as sculptural barbarians who only lived for the masterpieces of the past… Creation is the most important factor in any company.”50


Works Cited