Objects in Motion

San Francisco

5 February 2018

A recent contemporary dance production about Ray and Charles Eames took inspiration from the couple’s design process and philosophy.

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” is an overused aphorism that suggests there should be a rigid separation between various artistic forms. According to its logic, one should only write about the act of writing, sing about being a singer and put on theatrical or dance shows about the world of theatre or dance. Wisely, choreographer Kristin Damrow ignored that advice when she decided to create a contemporary dance show about mid-century design and architecture power couple Ray and Charles Eames at San Francisco's ODC Theater. In doing so, she found plenty of common ground between the fields: in the lines, movements, curves and swoops that occur in furniture, buildings and dance, and in the relationship between designed objects and the body.

She also felt an affinity with the modernist ideals of the Eameses. “Their design philosophy was about form following function and, from a production standpoint, I wanted everything to make sense and have a reason,” she says, referring to the minimalist staging of Eames, in which furniture and objects are evoked through the movements of the dancers, rather through the use of props. “I didn’t want to do a ‘chair dance’, which may seem like the first thing one would go to because the Eameses were known most for their furniture designs. Stripping it away to just the two characters and not adding anything extra seemed fitting.”

This synergy with the designers’ work extended to the process of choreography. “I remember reading about the Eameses testing many prototypes to find the right way to do things – throwing out ideas and starting from scratch. That in general is how we approach dance: seeing how something fits the mood, emotion or the quality of movement we’re looking for, and tweaking and shifting it to make sure an outsider can read it with clarity, rather than as a jumbled mass of things. When I would get lost in my own mind, I would go back to the Eames' design philosophy and ask: ‘how can I simplify this?'”

Patrick Barnes as Charles Eames and Heather Arnett as Ray Eames. IMAGE George E. Baker.

It's surprising that there's no well-known fictional account of the Eames’ lives, given the cult-like following the couple attracts among design and architecture aficionados. Damrow hadn’t heard of them until she witnessed her partner – a designer – swooning over an Eames chair at a flea market, and started to read about their influence on the development of modern architecture and design in the United States and the wider world. She had been searching for a narrative for her next production and was captivated by the personal story of the husband-and-wife team and in particular by the character of Ray, a woman operating in a male-dominated industry in the 1950s.

“I was a very struck by Ray spearheading this company and movement with Charles, given how women were viewed at the time”. Ray herself trained in dance with modernist dance pioneer Martha Graham, which Damrow found to be serendipitous. “A lot of our choreographic inspiration came from photographs and videos, because Ray and Charles are no longer alive, and you can see Ray’s dance training and body awareness in those photos – the way she’s posing, how her body language gestures towards whatever she is talking about or towards Charles. Having a character who already understood the body really helped us develop her character.”

Damrow decided to place Ray’s story at the centre of the production – while Charles is depicted by just one person, the dancer playing Ray is accompanied by three other women. "Each represents a different trait I was inspired by in Ray. One represents her passion – towards her work, her relationship and her overall outlook on creativity. Another represents compassion – the way she dealt with people in her daily life and how she approached design problems and life in general. Finally, there is independence – she was a powerful woman who saw she had these skills and persevered with her style, no matter what challenges and prejudices she faced. In our production, we look at how these different personalities would shine at different times and help her through problems.”

The show ran for just three nights in January at San Francisco’s ODC Theater, accompanied by a pop-up exhibition about the Eameses, including their moulded plywood and fibreglass chairs, as well as more playful items like the house of cards and elephant toys. There are no plans as yet for a repeat performance but Damrow has been talking to the San Francisco MoMA about the production’s future. “We had a great response and feel there’s a larger Eames fan club that would benefit from seeing the show too.”