How can visual images be interpreted in the form of dance? That was the challenge for the choreographer Malgorzata Dzierzon when she was commissioned to create three dance pieces, each inspired by one of the wallpapers designed by artists and architects for Maharam and the Serpentine Galleries in London. One was a design by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, another by the American artist Lawrence Weiner, and the third by the Japanese architecture studio SANAA. All three dance works were to be seen not on stage, but in short films directed by Flavia Rittner.
Far from being daunted by the prospect, Dzierzon was exhilarated, having experimented with scenography throughout her career as a dancer and choreographer. Born in Poland but now living in London, she has also collaborated with architects and designers as a member of New Movement Collective, which is committed to developing new dance pieces in response to unusual settings.
Dzierzon was invited to interpret the artists’ wallpapers by the London-based design curator Libby Sellers, who was charged by the Serpentine and Maharam with finding innovative ways of exhibiting them. Rather than present the wallpapers in the conventional context of a room set, Sellers decided to animate them to show the subtlety and ingenuity with which they were designed and made.
“I remembered Michael and Stephen Maharam telling me how their grandfather had made textiles for Broadway theaters and dance companies in the 1940s and 1950s,” she said. “Given that dance is such an important part of Maharam’s history and the work of so many great artists, it seemed like an appropriate way of presenting the wallpapers.”
Sellers chose Dzierzon to choreograph the project, having met her through the London contemporary dance group Rambert, for which she had danced for eight years. Having picked three of the wallpapers to work with in the films, Dzierzon devised dance works to be performed by four dancers—Eryck Brahmania, Antonette Dayrit, Thomasin Gulgec, and Estela Merlos—in a south London studio using sets constructed under her direction by Almost Everything.
“Dance doesn’t exist in a void for me,” said Dzierzon. “The connection between dance and visual imagery could be compared to the relationship between dance and music. The challenge for this project was to find subject matter that spoke to all the artists involved, and to create a whole bigger than the sum of the parts.”
She adopted a literal approach to interpreting Golden Age, Ai’s ornate design featuring birds, handcuffs, and surveillance technology to represent the role of social media in enabling people to overcome the constraints of state surveillance and censorship. “I wanted to create a contained environment where the wallpaper would be seen from every angle and evoke the feeling of the dancers being watched,” Dzierzon explained. “The choreography had to be very detailed in order for each body to tell its own story when in focus.”
Her response to the jaunty sailing boats in the fantasy voyage depicted in Weiner’s Sail On wallpaper was more visceral. “When I first saw it, I imagined a couple suspended in time, oblivious to the picturesque landscape passing by,” said Dzierzon. “In contrast to the ‘trapped’ duo of Golden Age, I made a duet that travels through the landscape with lots of space between the dancers’ movements and a steady rhythmical beat to the phrases.”
The third piece was based on Watercolor Flowers, SANAA’s contemporary interpretation of traditional Japanese flower paintings. Dzierzon commissioned two giant vases, which were covered in the wallpaper, and placed a dancer in each one so that only the top halves of their bodies were visible. “The dancers are two beautiful women who have an uncanny gift for dancing in perfect unison,” she said. “They are firmly rooted in their ‘vases’ while enjoying a sense of freedom in their upper bodies. The dancers are extensions of the flowers, and their distinctive personalities in combination with their physical similarities creates a sense of conversation between them.”
Alice Rawsthorn is a London-based writer on design. She is the author of Hello World: Where Design Meets Life, published by Hamish Hamilton.
Images: Photography by Hugo Glendinning