Across history, architects have designed for performance. Whether we consider Serlio’s scenographies, Bernard Tschumi’s fireworks, or Diller + Scofidio’s early performance works, as Elizabeth Diller has pointed out, designing for performance affords a “constructing of ideas in real space.” Collaborations between architects and choreographers in particular present laboratories for exploring ideas through relationships between moving bodies, space, and time. Within the roster of architects recently entangled with choreographers we find Diller Scofidio + Renfro, of course, and Steven Holl, as well as François Roche, SO-IL, Andrés Jaque, and many others. Rarely does an architect have the occasion to design both a set on stage and the larger setting in which the performance event occurs. More improbable still is designing both twice. Such is the revival of Available Light, first performed in 1983 and restaged this past June, a collaboration between choreographer Lucinda Childs, composer John Adams, and Frank Gehry. This architectural double bill has had a repeat performance, with a mere 32-year interval between acts.
Available Light premiered in early June at the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall. On stage Childs’s 11 dancers, dressed in black, red, or white, traced intricate patterns across Gehry’s set design, a pair of platforms. The dancers moved in parallels and diagonals, holding space in energetic stillness. The experience in the Disney Hall was a complex and exquisite recreation of a site-specific work last seen in the U.S. in 1983, and now revived as a touring production.
Julie Lazar commissioned the work in 1983 through the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Stages of Performance Series as a site-specific work for Downtown Los Angeles. At that time Gehry had already been awarded the museum’s “consolation prize” commission to renovate a garage located downtown into the Temporary Contemporary, and he was the natural choice to participate in this creative endeavor. Lazar’s intention, as stated in the MOCA catalog, was for the artists—Childs, Adams, and Gehry—to develop work in a truly collaborative manner, influencing each other while also respecting the legibility of each contributor’s work within an “integrated artwork.” This was a direct reaction to the John Cage–Merce Cunningham approach of bringing together independently developed parts at the last moment.
In the program notes for the restaged projection, Gehry stated that in these Cage-Cunningham works (to which Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg contributed sets) he experienced dance, music, and scenography as “melding seamlessly together,” in spite of the collaged approach. To figure out how he would respond to MOCA’s invitation he needed to really understand Childs, her work, and Adams’s music. So, Childs invited him to her dance studio in NYC, and there she sat Gehry down on the floor and danced solo after solo for him. He was transfixed. Reflecting upon this experience in an interview Gehry noted that he could see that her choreography was architectural and spatial. “It encouraged me to make the piece very spatial, and spread out in the Temporary Contemporary,” he said of his design for the performance staged in the building he renovated for MOCA.
Gehry located the stage, split into upper and lower platforms, within a large central bay of the Temporary Contemporary. He then split the audience, seating them in bleachers on top of two existing volumes, so that part of the audience faced the stage frontally and the other half watched from the side. The audience became part of the performance through the construction of what he described as “people relationships (between the audience, the performer, and back and forth), ” something that Gehry was exploring at that time.
More than three decades since premiering Available Light at the Temporary Contemporary, the co-creators’ memories are no longer crystal clear. It is unclear whether the thematic of the split stage and double grouping of bleachers built upon the doubling seen in Dance (Childs’s recently revived 1979 collaboration with Philip Glass and Sol Lewitt), or as Gehry’s response to site conditions, or to his interest in constructing people relationships.
The two stage platforms were constructed in situ of two-by-fours. An expanse of chain link fence was hung from one of the trusses to define the smaller performance space within the vastness of the industrial building. Lighting designer Beverly Emmons lit the fencing so that it shimmered, and also brought light in through the existing skylights of the Temporary Contemporary. While this first iteration was constructed as a site-specific work (beautifully documented by photographers Garry Winogrand and Grant Mudford in the original catalog), the team also faced the challenge of performing a “theatrical adaptation” one month later on the proscenium stage of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. This adaptation for BAM foreshadowed the new design that premiered in June, and has since toured to Philadelphia and Europe.
The 1983 BAM adaptation and Gehry’s new design drew upon the original doublings—two dance surfaces, two choreographic patterns (parallel and diagonal)—and the split audience’s a perspectival experience of this relation between surface and dance. From this, Gehry’s team developed a set with a single elevated platform; its angled cantilever established a second order in tension with the front of the proscenium stage and house. The new platform, now made out of ultra-thin aluminum, slopes and extends well beyond the five dismountable steel frames that support it. Below, a square of white marley delineates the orthogonal dance area of the now-absent lower platform.
An opportunity opened up in this reconfiguring from site-specific to touring set. The space between the lower and upper surface is now a habitable space from where the dancers first appear in silhouette and through which they pass at transitions in the performance. Where MOCA’s skylights offered opportunities to bring in another lighting atmosphere, this in-between space alternately glows, grabbing attention away from main dance surfaces, or disappears as a mere shadow line, separating above and below. The chain link backdrop has also returned; within the Disney Hall it continues to perform its former function of defining the space of the dance within a larger volume while also offering views of that which lies beyond.
Perhaps the most wonderful architectural component of this performance of Available Light at the Disney Hall was the “people relationships.” The building’s tiers of audience seating in the auditorium echo the set’s two terraces of dancers. Through leaps and steps in opposing geometries, the dancers stitch together the split between performance platforms and between audience and performance.
With the exception of this double bill—of Available Light being performed anew on a Gehry set within a Gehry house—the design of the people relationships in future tour venues is not included in the architect’s design mission. Thus the complex audience experience, viewing from frontal and oblique positions, and the sense of the dance floating within a larger environment, is unlikely to occur in the venues to which the performance will tour, unless done so at the hosting institution’s initiative.
The resituating of Available Light from the Temporary Contemporary (now the Geffen Contemporary) to BAM, to Disney Hall and future venues problematizes the reiteration of performance works conceived as site specific. Although the June performance reintroduced the world to Available Light within an existing space, the setting of this event within the Disney Hall revealed many of the same essential people relationships—dancer-to-dancer, dancer-to-audience, and audience-to-audience—that Gehry explored at the Temporary Contemporary. No doubt there is something lost in adapting site-specific works for re-situating. Yet much gained through the process of performing anew—the essential concordance between dance, space, and music is what shines through in full light.