Dance & Architecture: Spatiality of Movement

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As the title suggest, this is an exploration of an architecture space by studying the body movement, in particular through dancing. A typical dance choreography comprises of a series of movement elements and is inseparable from motion, space, and time. All these will give effects to the rhythm of the dance and is affected by elements of the physical environment that define space: light, scale, topography, the tactile quality of materials and the larger context.

Imagine a dancer as a storyteller who actualize the abstract concept of a particular space to tangible architectural design and define the spatial context. The study of the body movement is a communication process of finding the proper form and accurate space for a specific objective. From that we can deduce that movement, space, and time are the important characteristics shared by dance and architecture.

Although architecture is different from dancing, with both of them having their own convention, they do however have a similar creative process. The creative process involves the conception and development of ideas, the making of the end product and the emotional and intellectual experience the work evokes from the audience.


Designers will have to revert back to our root, which will require the understanding of our body movement to better quantify and qualify the human experience of objects and spaces. Although there are various techniques to analyse a movement and not to enforce any particular movement analysis as a standardizing method, it works with a system which is based on and is part of the dance. It is an established fact that dancers are more conscious of body movements than any other art disciplines. However, this design research does not limit dance to be the only discipline that influence the design of a space, but will form part of a common language which will allowed a better understanding and collaborative between the two practices, dance and architecture.

Problem Statement

That being stated, i began to realize that there is a bigger issue to address. Being a designer in training, we do not question enough what a good spatial design really is and how the public perceived the expertise of a designer. At the extraordinary rate of the global and societal changes, we are struggling to accommodate our ever growing population in the fast developing and increasingly dense cities and buildings. At some point in the distant future, we might be living in immense structure that harbour the whole neighbourhood and communities, a modern twisted interpretation of a Utopian City, and thus creating new challengers for us to address, which in turn force us to backtrack to the root of designing that further echo the truism of this architecture notion:-

“ Shaping the spaces we inhabit is human nature.”


To establish that these two artistic disciplines are interchangeable and have the ability to influence each other and/or to enhance the development of the opposite.


  1. To find out/explore the prospect of body movement aspect has in the creative design of a space.
  2. To challenge the relevancy of both discipline influencing a spatial design.
  3. To evoke people to the usage of our other senses instead of using the eyes to judge the aesthetic of the space.


A dance piece shown in 2002 by Swiss choreographer Gilles Jobin, entitled “Under Construction”, which is performance that generates a full architectural space based only on the bodies of the dancers and their organic and geometrical, yet very simple, movements. Towards the end of the piece, dancers dive under the dance floor, by cutting the surface with a knife. They disappear, leaving the stage completely empty, except for some plastic bottles filled with water that fall out of balance and slowly pour the liquid on the stage, creating a sort of natural artistic disaster, terrifying yet poetic. The dancers’ silhouettes moving under the linoleum floor and the water on the stage, suggest an imaginary or hallucinatory landscape. In this piece, the process and methods are clear and simple, the relationship between dance and architecture is self-evident, and the result is poetic. Hence, I believe that the possibilities for disciplinary fusion to create a space is limitless.

Scope of Research

Contemporary dance theatre practice demands a variety of stage types for different performance in contrast with the ancient Greek theatre. The evolution of a dance space is partly due to the further understanding of body movements. This research will examined the theatre of the old and comparing them with the contemporary.

After determining the general concept of the space design then will we examine the essential human behaviors and movements through space. The fusion of two disciplines will determine that an interior space will not only fulfilled human basic needs of comfort and shelter, but to create an aesthetical space that will evoke others senses of experiencing.


Having already establish the basis of the empirical research project, it is now important to deliberate on the research methods that will be undertaken. There are numerous approach to construct a correlational research and a combinations of few methods will be utilized to support the arguments that emanate during the course of research. Firstly, in order to comprehend the evolution of a dance space, a historical research will be constructed by evaluating case studies on library-based and online research methods. The outcome of the research will be compared with a descriptive research on a site chosen. Primary and secondary analysis will be taken to evaluate the dancers and the behaviors through structured observations of a dance and analyzing available video resources. A further qualitative approach with surveys and self-completion questionnaires from a focus group of dancers and an in-depth interview will be conducted with people who are expertise in the respective field of dance and architecture.The outcome of the research will establish that these two artistic disciplines are interchangeable and have the ability to influence each other and/or to enhance the development of the opposite.

Chapter 2: The Evolution of Dance and its Spatiality

From the earliest dawn of civilisation in every society, dance has been performed in various cultures as an emotional expressive element, a tool for social interaction, and up until the recent century, as a mode of exercise.

Dance is categorize as a form performing art. an art that involves movement of the body often in rhythm and to music. Dancing has invariably exercised influence and has been recognised as essential to better development of the human frame, which subsequently making the dancer a sculpture that moves to unfold a story.

Dance may also be considered as a form of expressive interaction between humans and other animals, as depicted in figure 1 in crane dances and behaviour patterns such as mating dances in many other species of animals. It was surmised as one of the earliest form of communication tool long before the first language was invented.

Figure 1. Crane dance has long been regard as a form of courtship display, seeking to advertise their willingness to mate, attract a partner and sometimes to warn off rivals.

2.1The Beginning of Dance

The rituals of imitating the movements of animals seems to emanate from the beginning of homosapiens, the earliest recorded arteacts showing a man mimics an animal in a stone-age cave in France circa. 15,000 B.C.E. Homosapiens, or more generally known as modern humans, were hunter-gatherers during the Paleolithic era. As depicted in figure 2, a man is seen with the horns of a deer and the torso of an animal which appears to be dancing. It is speculated that by identifying himself with the being of an animal and vice versa, a magical bond is thus created[1].

Figure 2. The cave painting, “Sorcerer” is found in Trois Frères, France. The technical term for such figure is “therianthrope.” This image is 75 centimeters in height and is part engraving, part charcoal sketching.

Be that as it may, some might argue that it should not be synonymous with the art of dance, for dancing should be an act of elegant storytelling or a method of expressing, not just a man in a costume as depicted. That would have been righteous judging by the cave painting and the painting only. But if we were to omit the visual effect and dwell deeper into its root, we would have seen a man, moving among the animals, imitating its every move to approach the animals without startling them and waiting for the final kill. We should not be ignorant to the fact that the man was a hunter, and his very life was dependent on the animals.

And that was his story, his dance with animals, his dance of life and dead.

Elegance it may not be, some parties might warrant an argument. But elegant by definition is graceful in form or movement. If his dance with the animals was not gracefully refined, dignified and executed, he would not have been able to blend in with the herd of animals and survived to make the kill and his story would not have been known or depicted in the cave drawing. Thus the stage was set, albeit an antediluvian one, it was afterall the beginning of a story, the origins of the understanding of body movement and its dwelling.

However, definitions of what constitutes a dance can be depending on the social and cultural norms, the aesthetic, artistic, and moral sensibilities. There are many styles and genres of dance, which required different dance settings to fully accommodate the performance piece.

Referring to the earlier mentioned “Sorcerer” cave painting (Fig. 2), we discovered that the man identified himself in the animal and as the animal. Human-like (or humanoid)[2] figures in the caves are relatively rare during the stone age with the images of animals greatly outnumber them such as the famous Hall of Bulls.

Figure 3. “Hall of Bulls,” Cave Painting from Lascaux, France circa 28,000 - 10,000 B.C.E.

But when these artists turned to characterize men like themselves, they drew those men as closely related to animals. Because similar to many other art disciplines, it reveals essences. And it is the very essence of man to imitate nature. And this is where the first dance stage was set, in the nature. The only space known and recognised by homosapiens, the ancient human beings.

The story of the beginning of dance and its space is a reflective history of us and our intrinsic need to improve our experience of the world[3]. Exploring the deep history of the human performing stage is, not solely for reminiscence but with the objective of developing further for the future. Knowledge of how our ancestors interpret body movement and the human habitat’s humble beginnings enables us to comprehend significantly the impact of evolution.

And it is an established fact that our early ancestor started living in the cave before the discovery of building process and spaces that will eventually leads to its development over the centuries and refinement to date. The following sub chapter will fast forward history from the paleolithic era to the beginning of times where the first Greek theatre architecture surfaced. It might appeared to be a huge leap from the beginning but it was necessary as this chapter is not to narrate the entire history of dance and its architecture but to highlight the significant period which brought about the changes of performing space.

2.2 The Beginning of Theatre

Greek theatre architecture appeared around the sixth century B.C.E. followed closely by the Romans’ theatre. Although the rationale behind Greek theatre architecture emerging in sixth B.C.E. has not been clearly distinguished, the dionysian mysteries [4] are widely taken to be the beginnings of the art of drama. It was performed by maenads[5], initially celebrated in the temple complexes, and was held thrice annually.

All the ancient greek theatres were generally built on the outskirt of the major cities, mainly on sloping grounds where the audience can be assembled in possessions. These site were customarily treated as holy ground where altars were placed on a dance floor strewn with sand and the participants performed circle dance to celebrate the god Dionysus.

Many of the ancient theatres were razed to the ground over the following few centuries and the theatre of Epidaurus (Fig. 4), arguably one of the most beautiful of all Greek theatres, is also the one of many few remained standing at present times.

Figure 4. A perspective view of the Great Theatre of Epidaurus in Greece.

Figure 5. Dionysus is the Greek God of wine and female fertility. He had female worshippers (maenad's) dancing in trance-like hysteria, accompanied by music, and ecstasy where the worshippers strongly belief that the god will bring the gift of compassion and a sensuality that will draw potential suitors.

Case Study: Greek Theatres

In the first half of the fifth century B.C.E., timber scaffolding was used for the first time providing greater viewing comfort for the audiences. However due to material’s extremely low resistance to fire, by the end of the century, Greek theatre were built with stones and set into slopes which followed the natural topography of the landscape.

Figure 6. The plan of Theatre in Epidaurus

Figure 7. The theater at Delphi is build up the hill from the Temple of Apollo and it presented the seated audience with a spectacular view of the entire sanctuary below and the valley beyond.

The theater of Delphi was built during the Hellenistic period, around the fourth century B.C.E., The site of Delphi is located in upper central Greece, on multiple terraces along the slope of Mount Parnassus, and includes the Sanctuary of Apollo, the site of the ancient Oracle. This semicircular spur is known as Phaedriades, and overlooks the Pleistos Valley.

At the Southwest of Delphi, is the harbor-city of Kirrha on the Corinthian Gulf. Delphi was thought of by the Greeks as the middle of the entire earth.

Figure 3.3 The theatron or the seating area is set into the natural slope of a ridge and the stage or the performance space is horseshoe shaped. The theater interlinks to a large atrium area in which audiences could stroll during the intervals between plays. Commonly, the theater will be associated with a temple complex that reflects the characteristic of a Greek theater performances. This has influence the design of the Roman theatre.

The differences

The Roman stage came to be widened considerably with the result that the auditorium space and the stage were able to achieve a spatial unity. Difficulties in artistic execution now arose due to the need for much larger stage design components. the stage height, however, was lower compared to that of the Greek equivalent.

The massive ashlar or rubber stone wall of the stage facing the spectators was elaborately decorated, such that the stage wall of the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens has a figurative frieze depicting the birth and worship of the god Dionysus. The front wall of the stage and a smaller back wall, parallel to the larger one, together enclosed a narrow interstitial space which may have housed a curtain. Stage depth was around eight meters, partly for acoustic reasons. In most cases, the rear side of the stage consisted of a grand , three-storey high expressive architecture.

Ancient theatre were laid out for considerably larger numbers of people than are those of today, resulting in a wider field of vision for the audience. This become obvious when the visual range of La Scala in Milan, which was 35 meters, is compared with that of the Theatre of Pompeii, measuring 75 meters. Whereas ancient theater had to rely on natural lighting for illumination, audiences in the present world are subjected to a constant alternation or artificial lighting.

Due to the ample space allocation, visibility of the stage play in ancient theatre were ideal compared to the contemporary theatres. Greek theatre were faced with an issue of having the stage setting and the edge of the stage overlapping each other and it was clearly noticeable from the front row patrons which house the exclusives. The Roman stage, however, was free from this problem due to the enlarged stage.

Although the design of the theatres evolved over the centuries, they will essentially require a stage to being functional, where all the performance will eventually take place.

That being said, a stage in the theatre is not a prerequisite for theatrical performance, as seen with plays being held in open grounds, temporary erected open-stages or anywhere possibly imaginable, the most recent being a dance performance that was executed elegantly on the facade of a building, as seen in figure 4.

Figure 4. “Waltz On The Walls” is a beautiful performance of aerial dance, also known as Vertical Dance, performed on the facade of the City Hall in Oakland by dancers Amelia Rudolph and Roel Seeber.

As such, the stage in the theatre has been established as a space for object of transformation and materialization of a play during the performance, but the theatre that holds the stage is seen as preservation of a space, an object of stagnation. This has rendered the theatre being an architectural building as just an external envelope that exemplifies impassive durability, and the performance itself as the key to engage with the audience emotionally.

This is proven with the evolution of the theatre over the centuries. In times of reduced audience, these large and inflexible buildings are difficult to convert into multi-purpose use and this might be the penchant for the smaller and more flexible theatres being introduced today.

The following chapter will delve into the precedent of dance and theatre architecture to analyze the changes over the course of history from the classic proscenium stages to the contemporary theatres that are built without specific designation which pertain to the changes in dance and body movement over the years.

until the present contemporary theatre of the twenty-first century C.E., an observation can be made of their distinctive difference in design and aims while analysing these theatre buildings.

[1] LEARY, Colin. The Stones Cry Out. Counter-Currents Publishing [online]. 2014. [Accessed 6 September 2014]. Available from:

[2] SUMMERS, Della. Longman dictionary of contemporary English. Harlow, Essex, England : Longman, 1987.

[3] CAAN, Shashi. Rethinking design and interiors. London : Laurence King, 2011.

[4] SCHMOLKE, Birgit. Theatres and concert halls. Berlin : DOM, 2011.

[5] KATHRYN, Topper. The Encyclopedia of Ancient History. London : John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2012.