In the crowded conventillos (shared tenements) of La Boca in Buenos Aires in the early 20th century, bodies were nudged closer to each other in the nascent tango. Seventy years later in New York’s Bronx, young people made the streets their dancefloor as hip-hop boomed at block parties and b-boys tried to outdo each other in acrobatic dance battles.
Both of these dance forms, tango and hip-hop, were sparked when people were thrown together in close proximity, often immigrants striving in hard-scrabble lives, looking for fun, escapism and self-expression – – the city’s marginalised residents claiming their space.
Dance needs cities. A choreographer cannot work alone. Dance needs people to perform and witness it, so will always thrive where many bodies are gathered en masse. But could cities need dance, too?
Ellie Cosgrave, a lecturer in urban innovation at University College London, is looking at how choreographic methods could improve urban engineering. Choreographers and engineers have some key things in common, she says: they both design materials and experiences through time and space.
Cosgrave says large engineering institutions are not fit to adapt to the fast-changing social, environmental and technological needs of the 21st century. Cities designed increasingly by computer modelling may not take into account the foibles and feelings of the humans who use them, and the kind of improvisation and live feedback that choreographers employ could provide a new model for creating urban spaces.
We’ll have to wait to see the results of Cosgrave’s research, but whether or not choreography could be used to shape the cities of the future, there are myriad ways in which cities have shaped dance: the mass of bodies thrumming through urban hubs has always been a motor and generator for movement.
Recent performances of some early Trisha Brown works. Clockwise from top left: Roof Piece, performed above the High Line park in 2011 in New York City; Man Walking Down the Side of a Building at the Broad Art Center in UCLA in 2013; Walking on the Wall at the Barbican in London in 2011
Around the same time hip-hop was taking shape in the Bronx, just 10 miles south in Manhattan the postmodern choreographer Trisha Brown was dancing a graceful semaphore among the chimneys and water tanks of Soho’s rooftops in Roof Piece (1971). In Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970) and Woman Walking Down a Ladder (1973), she had her dancers inhabit the vertical space of the high-rise city, horizontal bodies (in harnesses) descending down buildings. Brown turned the city’s streets and walls into her studio, and passersby into spectators.
More recently, New York’s streets provided the stage and set for a film adaptation of Jerome Robbins’ NY Export: Opus Jazz, his 1958 “ballet in sneakers”. The work was made just a year after his original production of West Side Story and has the same cool jazz feel. Its restless urban youthfulness still felt fresh and relevant 60 years later as dancers converged in an empty Brooklyn swimming pool and duetted on the (pre-renovation) High Line at sunset.
Robbins was assistant artistic director at New York City Ballet, where founder George Balanchine, a Russian emigre, developed a particularly American style of ballet, inspired by the vibrant skyscraper city itself: his dancers taller and thinner, their legs thrown higher, their pace faster, their lines sleeker, all fuelled by the energy and verve of the people and architecture around them.
The German choreographer Pina Bausch’s World Cities series was a group of 10 works that spanned from 1986 to her death in 2009, each made in, and inspired by, a different city around the world. The works give only tantalising impressions of the places they came from – each work is unmistakably Bauschian, a reminder that wherever we might go, we still take ourselves with us – but they are laced with particular flavours and her idiosyncratic observations.
Her vision of Sicily in Palermo Palermo is filled with litter, rubble and an obsession with meat; water is everywhere in Wiesenland, inspired by Budapest, city of spas and bathing. And sojourns in sunny Santiago (in the piece Como el Musguito), Lisbon (Masurca Fogo) and Istanbul (Nefés) produced softer, warmer works than the hard and sometimes cruel Teutonic tanztheater she’s known for.
Rather than showing us their own impressions, some artists ask viewers to rethink their perspectives on familiar cities. The Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Slow Walk is a mindful flashmob that has taken place in Brussels and Paris (and will be in Bruges on 23 February), where participants walk for several hours at a pace of less than five metres per minute, giving time to pay attention to every movement of their bodies and their relationship with their surroundings.
The Austrian artist Willi Dorner’s Bodies in Urban Spaces series takes a more absurdist approach, putting dancers in cities’s forgotten nooks and crannies, piling them up in alcoves or squishing them into gaps between buildings, railings or lamp posts, bringing our attention to architectural shapes and voids and making us look again at things we pass every day.
Dorner’s interest is in how design, large and small, limits where and how we can move, something that also appears in the work of Patricia Noxolo, a lecturer in human geography, when she talks about place ballet, a concept originated by David Seamon to describe how the movements and trajectories of people moving in a public space – at a market, for example – unknowingly create a large-scale choreography.
Noxolo also uses the term to refer to our individual movement signatures: how our surroundings mould the ways we move our bodies and embed physical habits, our own “place ballets”. Growing up in a concrete maisonette in Birmingham’s Lee Bank, her movement repertoire was forged by navigating narrow walkways, leaning over balconies, running down stairs and pounding hard pavements.
There is no doubt the design of cities influences how we move, from high-concept choreography to the literally pedestrian. Now it seems, in the light of Cosgrave’s research, that choreographers could be able to help create cities, too.