image of woman looking out of window

A Japanese stage designer builds worlds to dance in

December 05, 2019

Shizuka Hariu’s career traces a fluid line from dance to architecture to scenography. Like haiku, her work packs much meaning into seemingly simple structures.

Growing up, Shizuka Hariu dreamed of becoming a dancer. But instead of taking to the stage herself, she ended up designing striking sets for other performers.

At the age of two, she was paralyzed from the neck down with Guillain-Barré syndrome. “As a part of my recovery, my parents sent me to ballet classes,” she recalls. This formed her lifelong love of dance, which she pursued until her late teens.
Despite her determination to make a career out of dance, she came to the conclusion that she wouldn’t make it as a professional. Influenced by the work of her architect parents, she turned to architecture, earning degrees in Tokyo and London as well as a Ph.D. in scenography for contemporary dance in the U.K.

Since then, the scenographer and interdisciplinary designer has remained close to the performance world while applying an architectural approach to crafting scenes and spaces. Her works have graced stages around the globe, from Sadler’s Wells in London to the New National Theater in Tokyo, collaborating with world-renowned choreographers including Akram Khan, Sylvie Guillem and Robert Binet.

Her atelier for SHSH (the firm she runs with her partner and husband, the architect Shin Bogdan Hagiwara) in Brussels reflects her rich past in dance and architecture. Black-and-white photos of dancers hang next to 3-D models of her meticulous set designs. Her floor-to-ceiling bookshelves are full of architecture texts and sketchbooks. Like her work, her monochromatic space is modern and minimal, precise in its layout.

small model of person
Drawing of geometric shapes drawn with a pencil on a notebook

Architectural precision

While her sets are lauded for their simplicity, behind each one lies a complex structure and the deep, detailed research that comes from her background in architecture. Hariu’s craftsmanship lies in building something substantial and concrete, often using natural, solid materials. “I think there is a Japanese influence in what I do,” she says, “in how I use materials like stone and wood.”

For “Dystopian Dreams” at Sadler’s Wells in London, featuring Wang Ramirez’s hip-hop-influenced choreography and music by Nitin Sawhney, Hariu made 12 different models for the creative team to show how the design evolved. From a straight rectangular slope, it became a simple yet complex set that plays with viewers’ perception of reality through a tilted and curved ramp, an Escher-like staircase and walls that move. The curved volume also shows projection-mapped images.

I use as many natural, honest materials as possible and not too much plastic.

Digital hands

While she draws her initial sketches and crafts her models by hand, Hariu also works with programming-based computer design, following the advice of one of her former professors, Kazuhiro Kojima: “If you want to work on computers, work as if you were working with your hands.”

For “Solid Traces,” a sculptural installation Hariu created for the opening of the festival Charleroi Danse in Belgium, she fused a digital, mathematical approach with an artistic context. “[Composer] Thierry De Mey wanted to show dance in a different way, to show the trace of dance in a sculpture,” she says.

Working together, De Mey and Mons University scanned motion-capture data to digitally plot the movements of dancers as they performed Trisha Brown’s “Set and Reset.” This information was passed to Hariu, who transformed it into a 3-D spatial model, and simplified the movements to create a graceful object that suited her aesthetic.

Having danced herself, Hariu is mindful of the needs of the performers, putting thought into how they’ll interact with the stage. For the choreographer Robert Binet’s “New World” at Ballet Rhein in Düsseldorf, for example, a series of rotating vertical mirrors sent out dazzling beams of reflected light and multiple reflections of the dancers.

The mirrored set gave a futuristic feel to a dance that is about the distant past: the moment the universe was created. The cloud that appears near the end of the performance suggests the new world to come. “The shapes I design are sometimes very organic,” she says, “but I also like the mechanics of structure.”

A hand holding a 3D mock-up

Some people say they recognize my work because of its simplicity, but it’s not my purpose to simplify. It’s because I have an architectural background. The imprint of the spatial volume is what is most interesting to me, rather than a lot of color or decorative finishings. My scenography stands between the imaginary and the concrete.

yuriage machi cafe model featured in book

A futuristic lens

“Futuristic” is a fitting description for many of Hariu’s projects, often paired with references to the past. Take her creative direction for George Benjamin’s “Written on Skin” for Suntory Hall in Tokyo, an opera that darts back and forth between 13th-century Provence and the contemporary world. Besides creating the set, Hariu also directed the film shown in the background. “The music is so fascinating,” she says, “and the text is very complex, like haiku.”

Whether it’s a stage based on medieval France or dancing mirrors, one constant in her work is the idea of design as a vehicle for change – be it physical change or, in the case of her volunteer project in Japan after the 2011 tsunami, something less tangible. After the disaster, she and Hagiwara dedicated their vacations for five years to working with her parents’ firm, SHAA, as volunteers on Invisible Needs of Life, a project devoted to improving living conditions in Yuriage, Japan, Hariu’s father’s hometown.

While Hariu’s work blooms in a range of contexts, from creating a setting for a work of art to helping rebuild a town’s seafood market, her vision is always a humanistic one. “I grew up with the notion that design can impact people’s lives – from very small scale, starting with housing, to bigger-scale facilities and cultural locations,” she says. “I know that design can influence people’s lives and memories.”

woman holding ball of cotton

This three-part series explores the craftsmanship behind the works of exciting creative minds in stage design, opera and dance. In the same way that Dorchester Collection devotes itself to crafting perfect moments for guests, these creatives go the distance to transcend the ordinary and aim for the sublime.

This content was produced by T Brand Studio and previously appeared on The New York Times.
© Photography by Emli Bendixen

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