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Oct 08, 2008

Choreographer Noemie Lafrance is celebrating the architecture of Frank Gehry with dance performances on the tops of his buildings around the world.

By Amy Van Vechten

When the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College in New York commissioned Canadian choreographer Noémie Lafrance to stage a piece on site, she had an unlikely demand.
“The dancers had to be on the roof,” Lafrance says. “The studios inside are beautiful, but that was the perspective I was interested in.”
Staging and executing a performance on top of most buildings might not seem particularly innovative or challenging, but the Fisher Center is no ordinary building. Designed by acclaimed architect Frank Gehry, the building features a stunning rooftop of sloping curves made of shiny steel. And despite its fluidity, the building’s edges are raw and razor sharp.
After receiving word of Lafrance’s vision, Gehry contacted her with praise and encouragement. With him on board, the concept developed into a series of performances.
The piece at the Fisher Center, titled Rapture, is the first of nine dances that are scheduled to take place over the next four years on Gehry-designed buildings worldwide, including the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain.
The performances are more than just stunts to Lafrance, who says that the dancing on the rooftop is designed in part to communicate the feeling of the architecture to the audience.
“There’s a fantasy that occurs when you see [the Fisher Center],” Lafrance says. “You want to explore it with your body. You want to be up there.”

Watch our video interview with choreographer Noémie Lafrance.

The question was, could dancers really be transported onto the sloping rooftop?
Sean Riley, the rigging designer for Rapture, specializes in retrofitting existing structures with apparatuses that allow aerial dancers to fly. Though he has experience in many unconventional settings, Riley found this building to be unlike anything he had done before.
“This building is equal parts challenge and opportunity,” he says. “What makes it unique is what makes it a challenge. There are no straight lines. All the edges are unfinished flashing and would cut right through a safety rope.”
In order to create a unique aerial act, Riley designed a lateral custom rigging system that relies on trusses to keep the ropes from touching the building.
While the performance was being planned, the six dancers worked closely with the riggers in order to ensure their own safety.
In spite of careful attention to protocol, training, technology and technique, Rapture still battles the distinctive characteristics of the site. During sunny days, the metal surface of the building can reach up to 135 degrees—much too hot for the dancers’ feet. Morning dew makes rehearsal impossible as, of course, does rain. Lafrance and her team found only small windows in each day that had suitable conditions for rehearsal and performances.
“Performing up there is like walking a fine line between exhaustion and explosion,” says Corey Harrower, a contemporary dancer in Rapture. “It is physically taxing to be up there, but it’s really exciting.”
Because each of the Gehry buildings slated for the performance series provides its own challenges, Lafrance is approaching each one as an entirely different project.
“This is not a tour,” Lafrance says. “The experience must be tailored to every building. The costumes reflect different color schemes because of different building materials. And then you need new music, because the whole tone is different.”

From the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, this series of dances cover Gehry’s buildings all over the world. Learn about each building and Lafrance’s intended themes in our interactive feature.

In addition to choreographing the performances, Lafrance also makes the costumes and collaborates closely with composer Janek Schaefer to write the musical score for each piece.
It all goes into creating something the audience has never experienced before.
“This project is about opening people’s minds to things they wouldn’t think were possible,” Lafrance says. “It is also an aesthetic experience you haven’t had before. Challenging gravity. Challenging the limitations of physicality.”

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