Zaha Hadid made her New York stage debut last month at Lincoln Center's performing arts festival, which presented the North American premiere of Ballet National de Marseille's Metapolis II. The work, which explores themes of urbanism, was conceived by Hadid—who also designed the sets and costumes—with choreographer Frédéric Flamand, the company's director.
Metapolis II belongs to a trilogy of works examining the relationship between the body and the city that Flamand created with leading architects, including Thom Mayne and Dominique Perrault. It envisions a futuristic place “beyond the city” evoking the complexities of 21st-century urban life, where virtual reality collapses the distinction between actual and simulated; the physical does not delimit human encounters; and towns encroach on countryside, confusing the character of both. It is a place where, as Flamand says, “you're everywhere, but at the same time you're nowhere.”
To shape this “deterritorialized” world, he and Hadid conceived a mobile, multimedia scenography that employs special video-tracking and lighting effects choreographed with the dancers to convey the dialectic between a city and its inhabitants, suggesting their ultimate symbiosis.
Three aluminum-and-fiberglass arches, representing both the city and the forces that drive it, form the set's main elements. They are framed by a montage of film and video images that suggest the fluid boundaries and disparate sensory impressions of a modern dystopia. Costumes that resemble industrial components complement the robotic movements of a mechanized populace, while seminude dancers assert their humanity as they enter and slowly shift the metallic arches—reconfiguring their position, Flamand says, the way that people “choreographing” their lives shape their environment.
The effect of this roughly 90-minute gesamtkunstwerk is less architectural than it is painterly, sculptural, and graphic. It unfolds like a revolving art installation presented on a proscenium stage-cum-kunsthalle, with a kaleidoscopic panorama of huge murals displayed on the back wall. The foreground area, cast mainly in a neutral palette of black or silvery tones, contains only the aluminum arches, which are essentially large sculptures. At times the stage serves as a canvas for light shows that bathe it in washes of lush color or overall abstract designs, or it is punctuated with dazzling accents, such as fluorescent-red costumes set in a field of brilliant blue, or toe shoes brightly illuminated like strobe lights.
Groups of dancers traverse the stage in punchy, athletic movements along the trajectory of the three arches, accompanied by an electronic score. With the use of blue-screen technology, live video images of the dancers—taken by onstage cameras and projected onto the back wall of the set—merge with prerecorded film footage of city scenes, which are incorporated into the blank outlines of costumes and props as the performers move. These films then coalesce like puddles and dissolve when the dancers leave the scene.
In a closing sequence following a series of film clips that depict urban disasters, the audience is taken on an animated, computer-rendered whirlwind tour of Hadid's visionary urban designs—which sometimes devolve into what appear to be skeins of liquid paint or saturated brushstrokes—while dancers in the foreground push the set pieces about in tandem with the swirling imagery. Like all of Metapolis, this scene, a kind of duet between people and a city of the future not made to their measure, seems to translate urbanism—not to mention dance theater—into pictorial art. It intimates the subject visually, but doesn't really embody it.
But that may come. In the last scene, a girl lifts from the ground a spiral-shaped aluminum sculpture, designed by Hadid, with which she encircles her body like a hoop. It is a symbol of urban renaissance, according to Flamand—to be realized, perhaps, in Hadid's Dancing Towers development, now being “choreographed” in Dubai.
Although the Lincoln Center Festival marked the last scheduled performance of Metapolis during Ballet National de Marseille's current tour, the other works in Flamand's architecture trilogy—La Cité Radieuse, created with Dominique Perrault, and Silent Collisions, with Thom Mayne—will be performed in Europe through early 2008.