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A metropolis bustles with rich movement

Choreographer Frédéric Flamand and architect Zaha Hadid build a city in 'Metapolis II,' on view in New York.

July 25, 2007|Susan Reiter | Special to The Times

NEW YORK -- When Frédéric Flamand encountered the designs of Zaha Hadid in the late 1990s, the choreographer was struck by how the architect's work "is very much about movement, very kinetic. It's very clear, very feminine

I discovered the designs in her notebook -- they were fantastic, amazing, like Arab calligraphy. They were also like choreography in space."

Flamand, the Belgian choreographer and experimental theater director, was then running Charleroi/Danses, a neoclassical Belgian troupe he had jolted from a sleepy, predictable format as he began creating multidisciplinary works and introducing such unfamiliar influences as Merce Cunningham and Lucinda Childs. By 1996, he had become fascinated by the possibilities and challenges of collaborating with architects.

Today, the Baghdad-born Hadid is a major star among architects. Winner of the 2004 Pritzker Prize and the subject of a current major retrospective at London's Design Museum, the London-based luminary is juggling dozens of projects, including Rome's National Center for Contemporary Art, the Guangzhou Opera House and the Olympic Aquatics Center for her adopted city.

At the time he first met with her, Flamand recalls with an ironic laugh, "she didn't build so much." He is in a Midtown Manhattan restaurant, barely touching his Caesar salad as his words enthusiastically and thoughtfully spill forth, talking about the latest version of "Metapolis II," his collaboration with Hadid that Ballet National de Marseille is giving its United States premiere tonight as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. A multilayered examination of the realities and implications of contemporary cities (his title is meant to signify "what is beyond the city in space"), it features Hadid's sleek, intriguingly angular, bridge-like structures that can glide, reconfigure and even be "worn" by the dancers, as well as her costume designs. Projections -- of urban locations, disaster footage and the dancers themselves -- are incorporated fluidly on both an upstage screen and at times on the costumes, all evoking the overlapping, dense and threatening aspects of urban existence and where it may be heading.

The concept the two artists initially discussed "was about a metropolis -- our take on the idea of topography and landscape within the cityscape, and how that could configure certain kinds of urban strategies and large volumes," Hadid said during a phone interview from her office, after an initial call was aborted when she had to speak to a client in Dubai. "I've always lived in dense urban areas. It's about the whole idea of dealing with large, massive projects, and how I deal with ideas of density and intensity."

The original "Metapolis" had its premiere in 2000, and Charleroi/Danses took it on tour to various European locales. When Flamand was named artistic director of the larger Marseille troupe, he created an expanded, altered version -- now performed by a cast of 19 rather than the original 11 -- but Hadid's contribution remained unchanged. "It changed completely, with new dancers. It's like a new city; in fact we have the same buildings but completely new inhabitants," Flamand observed.

Hadid describes an initial concept for her set design as resembling "an animation, like a wire frame." This evolved into "a series of bridges. What is interesting is when they are sandwiched together, they are much more compressed, and when they are fragmented, they become very different individual pieces. They oscillate between being a topography to being a bridge bridging over a space or a ravine, and also bridging between cultures. Some of them have holes, so people can walk through them and move them around like a big skirt."

She had come across a special lightweight material for a dome that was part of another project at the time and found it served ideally for the "Metapolis" set. "It is a kind of honeycomb, a continuous surface, very stiff and very light. They use it for aircraft floors or spaceships. At the time we were very preoccupied with the idea of seamlessness and a fluid movement, and of course dance is going to have the idea of fluidity within a space."

Practicality also played a role, as Hadid was concerned with how easily the set could be dismantled, packed and unpacked. She had to keep such aspects in mind for a project she recently completed -- a temporary pavilion that stood in Hyde Park. "It was like a set," Hadid said, describing its configuration as "three large mushrooms -- or umbrellas."

Although little of her work has been seen in this country -- there has been one major building, Cincinnati's Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, and New York's Guggenheim Museum offered a retrospective last year -- Los Angeles is scheduled to be one stop for the Chanel Mobile Art Pavilion, set for an early 2008 opening in Hong Kong.

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