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Let’s Dance!

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The worlds of architecture and dance don’t intersect very often. This makes me think they might move in sync, respectively affirming the same forces acting upon society. Perhaps by looking at how dance has both changed and stayed the same over the past hundred years we can learn something about how architecture has also. I don’t know – let’s see. It’s summer. The theme of many posts in this the Year of The Bauhaus has been to ask what “designing for industry” actually meant and for whom. Who stood to gain and who to lose in last century’s stampede to pander to the wants of industry?

At the same time in Weimar Germany, writer, journalist, sociologist, cultural critic, and film theorist Siegfried Kracauer was pondering the socio-aesthetic significance of The Tiller Girls, a British* dance troupe formed in 1890 and that were a hit in Berlin in the 1920s. And why not? “What good is sit-ting, a-lone in your room?”

“Not only were they *American products; at the same time they demonstrated the greatness of American production. I distinctly recall the appearance of such troupes in the season of their glory. When they formed an undulating snake, they radiantly illustrated the virtues of the conveyor belt; when they tapped their feet in fast tempo, it sounded like business, business; when they kicked their legs high with mathematical precision, they joyously affirmed the progress of rationalisation; and when they kept repeating the same movements without ever interrupting their routine, one envisioned an uninterrupted chain of autos gliding from the factories into the world, and believed that the blessings of prosperity had no end. “ [Siegfried Kracauer, quoted in K. Michael Hays’ Modernism and the Posthumanist Subject, p.263]

*Kracauer seems to have thought The Tiller Girls were American but it’s perhaps forgivable if he’d seen that above backdrop. It’s taken me a while to understand what Kracauer meant by the following but it’s beginning to make sense now.

  • Spatial images are the dreams of society. Wherever the hieroglyphics of these images can be deciphered, one finds the basis of social reality.
  • The aesthetic topography of mass culture is the surface that reveals the movement of society within a historical context.
  • The mass ornament is … the aesthetic reflex of the rationality aspired to by the prevailing economic system.

These are all very provocative ideas even if they’re all expressions of the one idea that it’s not the high art but the low that reveals more about us. [Perhaps the necessary role of high art is to prevent us seeing the truth all too clearly?]

Ludwig Hilberseimer (1885–1967) was a German architect and contemporary of Walter Gropius (1883–1969). His proposals can’t be said to be the aesthetic topography of mass culture yet Hays uses Kracauer’s notion of the mass ornament to talk about it. There’s a lot of repetition repeated, it must be said.

“Like The Tiller Girls, Hilberseimer’s mass ornament is an end in itself. According to Kracauer, the mass ornament – unlike military demonstrations, say, whose aesthetic order is a means to an end, or in any case, tied to feelings of patriotism, loyalty, and morality, or gymnastic configurations that have functional and hygienic dimensions – has neither aesthetic nor functional meaning. In the end there is closed ornament, whose life components have been drained of their substance.” [p.266]

I suspect Kracauer’s notion of the mass ornament can be applied to most architecture that’s happened since. In Weimar Germany the intelligentsia were excited about factories and mass production and, at least from 1925, so was Walter Gropius. If Hilbersimer’s projects were the dreams of society in that they were manifestations of the rationality aspired to by the prevailing economic system, then the same can be said about the architecture of Hannes Meyer and his use of building components and devices not intended as ornament. Those building devices and components are closed ornament in that they mean no more than what they are but shouldn’t this instead be seen as their substance and an affirmation of their “life components”? Those same components may still be subjected to the arbitrary projections of observers and possibly even regarded as ornament but that’s neither the components’ problem nor our business. Enough – bring on the dancing!

Kracaeur could have caught The Tiller Girls in Manchester anytime after 1889. Already we have a link between precision dancing and industry, if not architecture. By 1835 Manchester was a major centre for cotton processing and later, general manufacture. It was the first and greatest industrial city in the world.

Manchester in 1857.

If Kracauer had been in New York anytime between 1907 and 1931 he could have seen the Ziegfeld Follies championing American industry on Broadway.

The Rockettes were formed in 1925 in St. Louis but have been associated with New York’s Rockefeller Center ever since its first buildings opened in 1932 in the midst of the Great Depression (when faith in industry was at a low?) They’re still kicking.

The linearity of chorus lines is a consequence of the frontality of stages but movies didn’t have this limitation. The ends of a chorus line could meet to create a kaleidoscopic microcosm of repetition. Busby Berkeley set the standard for this and many other types of Hollywood precision choreography.

Scenes were often set up horizontally on rotating stages and filmed from above. Synchronized dance could be used to inspire patriotism during wartime without losing the spectacle of the production line, especially when combined with Hollywood’s penchant for staircases.

The endless production belt where output becomes input.

The economic symbolism of New York Dance comes alive in this next architectural moment from Berkeley’s 1933 film 42nd Street that recalls Kylie Minogue rocking the city in 2001 with help from some synchronised dance and Kraftwerk imagery that itself recalls the 1930s love affair with mechatronic motion. [c.f. Aesthetic Effect #5: COMBINE]

But let’s not race ahead to the past. Between Busby Berkeley and Kylie comes Jerome Robbins who’s best known for the optimistic precision dancing he devised for the 1957 musical West Side Story and almost as well known for ratting on everyone he knew during the McCarthy-era when witch hunts were witch hunts. In 1957, conformity was demanded by law and dancing in sync the perfect expression of that. Architecturally, this was the heyday of The International Style, a style not known for its freestyle whimsy. Facades, and the buildings themselves, were repetitions of repetitions of things factories were there to churn out,

By 1940 the Jitterbug was a popular dance that lasted into the late 1950s and the first rock and roll. It morphed into The Twist that became the first social dance style of the now teenage baby-boomers.

Much like salsa and ballroom dances such as the tango, the Jitterbug and Twist had several basic moves couples could freely combine or develop into spectacular displays. This was no production line. The late sixties had many dances with characteristic sets of moves. Offhand, I can think of The Frug, The Monkey, The Chicken, The Watusi, The Mashed Potato, The Hitch-Hike, The Jerk and The Swim. Instructions on how to do them were on the side of cereal boxes – Special K, if I remember rightly. Driven by the music culture of the baby boomers, dance was everywhere.

During the 1970s it seemed the whole world was dancing and the look was one of individuality but within an overarching conformity. Television music and variety shows made it impossible to not know about this new dancing. The word discotheque hadn’t yet come into popular usage but if one wanted to dance one would go to a go-go club that featured professional house dancers, sometimes caged but whether for their protection or that of the clientele I don’t know. [Where’s Kracaeur when you need him?] I’m just guessing, but I’d say the message is that wanton displays of individuality will be tolerated only within boundaries.

Choreographer Bob Fosse was one of the first to represent these new realities of people doing “their own thing” within limits. He was an accomplished dancer more in style of Gene Kelly than Fred Astaire, and directed and choreographed the 1969 movie Sweet Charity. He gave shape to the idea of people doing much the same thing but differently. Here’s a still from the song, Hey Big Spender. Everyone’s moving differently but each within their own space – a device that only heightens the sense of everyone being in the same predicament. It seems that if precision dancing has ugly connotations, then breaking that precision in similar ways only reinforces the sense of unity and shared destiny.

Fosse also directed and choreographed the 1973 movie Cabaret but his choreography for the 1975 musical Chicago featured precision dancing and developed his idea of individual dancers creating a human landscape.

Something must have been in the air in 1975 for that was the year German choreographer Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring premiered. Male and female movements often contrast but, even when not, individual variations occur naturally within a group endeavour and the result is unity but without precision. Again, this says more about the human condition than it does production. However, dance as art-commentary is not the same as dance as popular culture. Bausch drew a distinction between repetition that numbs and repetition where “The same action makes you feel something completely different by the end.” 

Architecturally, we could say SITE’s 1970s work for the BEST warehouses is about individuality within very controlled parameters, yet all working towards the same effect. The New York Five can be considered one.

Seaside Florida was eventually completed in 1985 but it’s a creature of the mid-seventies. No two houses are allowed to be alike yet somehow they manage to be all the same. It could be suburbia anywhere. Its representation of difference [commonly misunderstood to mean individuality] within a representation of uniformity [commonly misunderstood as community] is a useful notion if one wants to engineer a superficially satisfied yet deeply compliant society. [If I were to be the future King Charles III, my ideal society would probably try to recreate a time when kings were kings and peasants peasants.]

From 1975 we have A Chorus Line, that attempts to make us empathise with the dancers who want nothing more than to sacrifice personality and individuality for the mass ornament. The finale outdoes the production lines of The Tiller Girls, The Rockettes and Busby Berkeley by doubling the number of dancers and multiplying their reflections again and again until the stage is crammed with synchronised gold and One [two-three-four] Sin-gu-lar Sen-sa-tion. Contrast The Slaves’ Chorus from Nambucco that doesn’t strip everyone of their humanity and then glorify it. [c.f. Opera Houses]

We danced through postmodernism either to the sound of disco or its opposite, punk. In typical subversive style, punk dancing consisted of jumping up and down and bumping into people. It was violent and energetic and uniting and generally disapproved of for being all those things. Dance was used to make an anti-social statement. This contrived upsetting of social norms has its vanilla architectural equivalent with the excesses of post-modernism. Confrontation had been absent from the world of architecture until Deconstructivism when suddenly all buildings had to challenge our perceptions of what a building should be. Rudeness became normal. Buildings were expected to shock. You can find your own examples.

1982 and the yuppie years of conspicuous consumption brings us Michael Jackson’s Thriller that reintroduced a new generation to precision dancing and its symbolism so expertly identified by Kracauer.

IT NEVER REALLY GOES AWAY.

It just keeps getting reinvented over and over, saying the same thing.

Breakdance or Breakin’ (to give it the preferred name of practitioners) is subversive because it is a solo activity. Its complexity, its high threshold for entry-level skill, its necessary speed and its high level of improvisation work against synchronised precision, as does its use of the full body. Breakdance has so far resisted neutralisation by homogenisation as there’s little danger of it being taken up by everyone. Its high spectator-to-performer ratio makes it likely to be included in the Paris 2024 Olympics and thus neutralised by assimilation.

Architecture has its own problems with a high spectator to performer ratio. Manifestations of pure individuality are more powerful when juxtaposed with something contrasting. Music has its lead singers and its backing singers, its lead guitars and its rhythm guitars, its orchestras and its soloists. Ballet has its principals and its corps de ballet. It’s enough to make one think society is always going to reward its star performers for drawing attention away from the great masses just keeping time in the background.

This post began with the premise that dance and architecture both exist to make us accept the world in the form it is being made for us, rather than create it in any direction we might like it to move in. I found nothing disproving the notion of popular aesthetics as the vehicle used to force acceptance of a desired social order. Architects are rewarded with fame proportional to the degree they work to lubricate this mechanism. [c.f. Burden of Proof] Or is it just coincidence our most famous architects all work to cater to the needs of big-tech surveillance companies, the mega-rich, and governments with questionable records re. human rights? And that this is deemed praiseworthy? And all the while we’re told not to mix architecture and politics?

Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart’ made a much tighter case for Disney comics being vehicles for American cultural imperialism in their 1971 essay How to Read Donald Duck, They said the world shown in Disney comics may seem fantasy but it’s nevertheless grounded in ideological concepts that create what become natural truths leading to the acceptance of particular ideas. In the case of Disney and Donald Duck, these ideas are about accepting certain ideas about the importance of money but other sub-topics are the developed countries’ relationship with the Third World, gender roles, etc. This is not worlds apart from Kracaeur’s observation re. The Tiller Girls, and my suspicions regarding the smiley face of architecture.

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