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Elevation- A Ballet Exploration of an Architectural Space

To highlight the impact that visual creators have on our society, the Look Up campaign aims to recognize architects and their vision when multiple creative forms are intertwined. We had the pleasure of speaking with the talented team behind “Elevation- A Ballet Exploration of an Architectural Space,” a collaboration of architecture, film, dance, and music. The collaboration was commissioned by William Reue Architecture as they concluded the design and construction of the Riverview Townhouse in New York City’s West Village. To honor the creative effort that had gone into it, a dance was choreographed and filmed to capture the kinetic spirit of the building.

Read the inspiration, vision, and process behind the collaboration through the eyes of Architect and Executive Producer William Reue, Director Brandon Bloch, Choreographer Sean Roschman, and Director of Photography Tim Sessler.

William (Billy) Reue: Architect/Executive Producer

Q: What inspired your design choices in creating a space for people to enjoy, and how does this reflect your vision as an architect?

Minimalist art, and in many ways minimalist architecture, maintains a certain level of rigorous pragmatism that I am drawn to. In all of our work, we seek to create simple, clean, and useful spaces that are free of clutter and visual noise. For this particular project, I was inspired by historic industrial buildings that used to be common on the west side of Manhattan. These structures were tough and durable with large, well-lighted open spaces that could support nearly any type of manufacturing — and they are the perfect model for modern residential living.

Q: What did you want to accomplish with this collaboration?

With this film, we wanted to honor the creative effort that went into making the building. Our intent was to use dance, film and music to capture the spirit of the building in a kinetic way – much more descriptive, real, and alive than two-dimensional photography could. We also wanted to collaborate with other artists and we wanted to learn something new. Whatever happened, we knew that the experience would enrich and inform our future work.

Q: Do you have any advice for making such a powerful visual impact through architecture and filmmaking?

The most important thing is to start with solid design work that responds to the time, place and circumstance of your project. Use the specificity of your building to inform your film’s narrative. Once you have committed to making the film, be fearless. Take smart risks. Follow your instincts. And above everything else, absolve yourself of any worry that it may not turn out perfectly.

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Brandon Bloch: Director

Q: In your opinion, what makes this collaboration so distinctive and impactful?

I think collaborations are most successful when you don’t know where one role ends and another begins. For this project, we brought together a team of specialists in such seemingly different artforms – architecture, film, ballet, music – but everyone was free to offer ideas across the board.

What I’m most proud of is the way we all traded ideas so they intermingled and informed one another. For example, I might offer an idea for a ballet move to work well with how we approached the shoot, Sean Roschman would adjust our camera to work better with his choreography, Billy Reue would chime in and offer an idea to block out a shot based on an architectural feature. It was a “yes and” environment where every idea was offered freely and considered with openness and enthusiasm. What it all adds up to in the final film is a seamless flow of artforms greater than the sum of its parts.

Billy and I noted multiple times throughout the project all the similarities between architecture and filmmaking. The processes of outlining a plan, and then bringing together teams of specialists to create something larger than any one person can build is a foundational theme in each craft.

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Q: What was your process for creating a new vision and perspective for this collaboration?

What struck me was that typically architects will only show empty rooms to showcase their projects. Whereas, from my outsider perspective, the built environment is made complete once people interact with the space. That’s when the story really begins! Up till that point, architects are building the stage.

The idea to tell a rich and dramatic story through an elaborate ballet performance seemed like the perfect way to activate the space in a high-art way that honored and elevated Billy Reue’s design.

First, we set to work crafting the story – Everyone offered their ideas, but the overall goal was to create a story that was ambiguous enough to be open to different interpretations by anyone watching the video. I feel great art creates more questions than it answers. And our hope was that the ballet performance would spark these questions and evoke an emotional response that would feel personal to each viewer.

One pretty interesting anecdote – The film was shot in 6K resolution on a RED Epic Dragon camera mounted to a prototype stabilizer called the Movi Mimic (it allows remote pan and tilt). This technology literally didn’t exist just a few weeks before we shot this film. The technology’s capabilities came into play most effectively during the shot where we rise up the stairs and then drop down to follow the dancers as they slam into the fireplace. That one shot took four people to create: One operator (Fernando Ortega) was moving with the dancers for the first part of the shot. He rises up the stairs as I descend the stairs behind him. Then he passes the camera down to me to continue the shot toward the fireplace. Meanwhile, Tim Sessler is upstairs operating Pan and Tilt remotely. And we have an Assistant Camera operator (Mike Mazur) remotely pulling focus to follow the movements of the performers. That’s a pretty complex shot in my world.

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Sean Roschman: Choreographer

Q: What was your personal vision for this interpretive and artful storyline in such a striking space?

The vision was always to dive into the idea of the intimacy of a home. What happens in a space that changes us, lifts us up, destroys us, defines our future. How can a collection of brick and mortar become a deep well of emotional memory. I immediately wanted to match the movement with the space, and was struck by the main floor where we did most of the shooting. On my first site visit I witnessed the glow from the setting sun pouring through the windows off the Hudson River, reflecting the floor and casting a warm radiance throughout the whole space. It was clean, classic, elegant, and controlled, but with this wild light being cast all around the space. It was then that I began to see the dance.

I connected to the theme of being faced with two choices, and having to make the choice to walk away, even when everything in your heart is telling you to stay and fight. The intense release and the profound pain that kind of decision can bring. The people we leave behind when we walk away, and the life that could have been. The space, the block where the apartment was, and the city itself all served as inspiration. I was getting ready to say goodbye to New York City after 12 years as I was choreographing this film: the beauty of the space and neighborhood were both seriously inspiring and deeply bittersweet.

The addition of the brilliant, brilliant dancers, as we went into the studio, began to inspire me even further. I fed off their generous energy in the room and began to build the dance. The dancers brought not only a deeply human element to the process right away, but within their incredible technique and training; the tools to interpret these broad themes into intricate detail with their bodies. Their strength and vulnerability made the picture crystal clear (or as close to crystal clear as choreography can be in my mind!) as I began to assemble the steps and movement. I was truly lucky to work with some of the most talented dancers I’ve ever gotten into a room.

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Q: How did you go about coaxing the conversation between the dancers, filmmakers, and architecture to be complimentary?

William really was instrumental in guiding the whole vision. In our first conversation I knew a good deal about what kind of story he wanted to tell and how he wanted to tell it. Brandon was a master, a true artist. He choreographed the movement of the camera and the scenes with as much skill as a dance choreographer. By the time I started actually making steps and movement, we were all on the same wave length about what the arch of the piece was going to be. I would create a short dance sequence and Brandon would look at it and know exactly what would make it come alive on film, the dancers found small moments where they could let their characters come alive, William would provide valuable input, and we would have a shot. The whole film grew in that fashion. The day of the shoot provided some serendipitous moments of unexpected inspiration that worked that way too.

At the end of the day, the most difficult choices we were faced with were narrowing down what the actual content was going to be. We had so many compelling options in terms of shots, moments, narrative choices, locations. It was very difficult to narrow it down to fit a relatively short dance film. I could have made another hour of work in the space with that team. It really was a painless, inspiring, and extremely fulfilling process.

Tim Sessler: Director of Photography

Q: What was the goal for choreographing the camera to flow alongside the dancers and architectural space?

The goal of the piece from a camera standpoint was to have the camera (and thus the viewer) dance with the dancers. It’s not observing from the sideline – it’s being in the middle of the action, a fourth invisible character if you wish. From a DP standpoint this was by far one of the most physically and mentally exhausting projects I have ever worked on. After each take we would sit down, watch, critique, and improve the camera movements – then go up again with a 20 lb heavy rig for another continuous minute-long take.”

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Q: What made this collaboration unique for you?

This project really comes down to the fundamentals of filmmaking. It was a collaboration that allowed us to bring together extremely talented artists from all different fields, (an architect, dancers, storyboard artist, choreographer and filmmakers) to capture the film in a unique way. To me this really is what makes filmmaking so special.

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