Solid Liquid Ether

A pair of dancers spiral through a shallow pool, echoing the swoop of the suspended glulam beams above. Photo by Black Rhino Creative
A pair of dancers spiral through a shallow pool, echoing the swoop of the suspended glulam beams above. Photo by Black Rhino Creative

The Grandview Heights Aquatic Centre in Surrey, BC, boasts the longest spanning catenary timber roof ever constructed. With 55-metre-long glue-laminated beams dangling from rigid concrete columns, the ceiling appears malleable and lax, as if it were a swatch of cloth surging in the wind. Such architectural insinuations inspired choreographer Heather Myers to create Solid Liquid Ether, a site-specific dance performance that uses the building as both stage and muse.

The performance was sponsored by Vancouver’s HCMA Architecture + Design as part of an artist-in-residence program established to infuse ideas from other creative disciplines into their practice. Partner Darryl Condon, FRAIC, explains that these peripheral explorations help to increase the social impact of the firm’s work by exposing architects to alternative creative perspectives.

While developing the performance, Myers was involved in discussions with HCMA partners and even hosted a movement workshop for the architectural staff, which allowed her to communicate some of the ways that a dancer deals with fundamental issues of spatial design, organization and communication. As Condon suggests, the two disciplines have their own respective approaches to symmetry, grid patterns and spatial narrative.

Although the initial plan was to stage the performance at the grand opening of the facility this June, issues with logistics and timing arose. Instead, the end product is a four-minute film that follows two dancers, gesturing in rhythmic tandem to the structures and surfaces that surround them. To accommodate the revised format, the team brought in Black Rhino Creative, a collective that specializes in cinematography, adding another voice to the project.

In Myers’ account, Solid Liquid Ether enhances the perception of mundane spaces, such as the locker corridor and change spaces where the piece opens. The dancers use architectural geometries as their jumping-off point. The staircase inspires a staccato and rigid style; the round walls of the universal change spaces suggest more bulbous gestures. A scene on the dive tower integrates almost-stationary caesura into a fluid set of movements, juxtaposing the cantilevered aspect of the platform against the undulating lines of the bespoke ceiling above.

On one level, the dancers direct the eye of the viewer and draw attention to notable aspects of the architecture. On another, they provide a nuanced interpretation of the way the building may be inhabited. This latter benefits the architects by contributing to their understanding of the aquatic centre as a building type, and potentially influencing future designs.

From a broader perspective, the film folds a layer of creative expression over a civic facility that will be a central node for the Grandview Heights community for decades to come.

By providing an interpretation that removes the building from habitual experience, it begins the work of community appropriation that allows architecture’s place-making agenda to take hold. In this respect, Solid Liquid Ether is an innovative way of nudging the fledgling building out of the nest.

To watch Solid Liquid Ether in full, click here.

Mark Woytiuk is a Vancouver-based writer, researcher and intern architect.