The set is no mere background in the dance performance Anchises. Five dancers assemble and disassemble foam cubes, sit on them, lean against them, and stack them.
The performance, choreographed by Jonah Bokaer, premiered last October in England and ran in November at the Abrons Art Center in New York. For Ariane Lourie Harrison and her partner, Seth Harrison, of the New York firm Harrison Atelier, collaborating with Bokaer was more than a chance to explore theatrical design. “Understanding how to give visibility to an issue, be it only in ephemeral form—a performance or a pavilion—is a valuable site of experimentation,” Ariane says.
Ariane teaches at the Yale School of Architecture; Seth is a designer and entrepreneur focused on biotechnology. They met Bokaer through a friend, and Bokaer later asked them to help brainstorm a new performance. The three were interested in aging, so Ariane and Seth found an image for inspiration of Anchises, a figure from Greek myth, being carried out of the burning city of Troy by his son Aeneas. “That image was the ideal of filial piety, taking care of your parents,” Ariane says.
Ariane and Seth (who are 39 and 50, respectively) had just finished phase one of a master plan for the Fire Island seashore in New York, in which they tried to engage all ages. “The person you are at 8 years old could be considered as different from … 80 as [are] a man and a bird,” Seth says. In Anchises, the five dancers, aged from 24 to 75, make visible Seth’s point by the differences in their range of movement.
On the set, medical-like clear PVC tubes hung from metal rods are tied together to hold foam cylinders in a basket. During the performance, the dancers undo the tubes, and the columns topple. The Harrisons had noticed that in Baroque paintings of Anchises, he usually carries something. “We saw that Anchises was carrying a bag. Both Aeneas and Anchises were carrying burdens,” Ariane says. “We said, ‘Let’s take that bag and blow it up.’?” The basket holds “glories of civilization, burdens of family obligations, debris of exiled populations, or blocky pieces of familiar furniture,” Ariane says. “We wanted to use the idea of age to pose some difficult questions.” The set represents the ruined city of Troy, but also the breakdown of the body as we age and the state of facilities for the aging. “Are we ready as a society,” Ariane asks, “to really address the aging population in a way that doesn’t recourse so quickly towards institutionalization?”