This winter season, the spectacular dancing won’t be the only performance for New York City Ballet audiences at the David H. Koch Theater. On the Promenade, 15 large illuminated artworks enveloped in silken skirts will hang from the gold-leaf ceiling, majestically descending and rising, opening and closing to their own rhythms. Aptly titled Shylight, the creation is the 10th installment in NYCB’s acclaimed Art Series featuring site-specific installations by contemporary artists.
"We like the Shylights to come down close to the people standing below, like they’re coming out to play, but you can’t quite reach them,” says artist Lonneke Gordijn, the co-founder with artist Ralph Nauta of DRIFT, an experiential art studio in Amsterdam. Observing that our society moves at breakneck speed, Gordijn explains that their kinetic sculptures are programmed to mimic our natural body rhythms. “So, as you adapt to this environment, you can feel your body slow down, and that makes you feel very good.”
Founded in 2007, DRIFT is known for devising wondrous, often mind-boggling environments that use technology to explore and amplify natural phenomena. The blossoming of flowers and the flight of starlings are just two of the natural occurrences that have propelled the artists’ work. To these they use sophisticated technology like robotics, sensors, and virtual reality to create a new, often heightened perspective on nature designed to re-awaken the viewer’s connection with it. Their bewitching sculptural installation Fragile Future is shaped from three-dimensional bronze lighting circuits connected to light- emitting dandelions. Tree of Ténéré, a breathtaking outdoor light installation, uses advanced software and 75,600 environment-reactive LED lights to simulate the growth of a living tree.
It’s art that prioritizes experience over objects. DRIFT’s work has been shown at the Venice Biennale, Burning Man, The Shed, and Times Square Arts’ Midnight Moment, and resides in the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Paris’ Centre Pompidou, and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, among others.
Gordijn and Nauta created their first Shylight in 2006. It was their initial project together, created 18 months after their graduation from the cutting-edge Design Academy Eindhoven where they met. Their fascination with movements in nature inspired the piece—in particular, the ability of certain plants to react to light by closing or opening their flowers at night known as nyctinasty.
“When I see a flower, I see and feel emotions,” Gordijn says. “There’s a moment of it being very vulnerable, then slowly gaining more confidence as it blossoms. Then it opens and needs to bloom like crazy to attract bees and reproduce. That’s what we wanted to express in an inanimate object.”
Making that magic happen took years of effort, experimentation, and cultivation of new skills. “Shylight is the project that taught us the most about mechanics,” says Gordijn, who learned to build a circuit board and work with motors, among other things, while developing the work.
The defining moment arrived when Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum commissioned five Shylights for permanent display over a magnificent 17th-century baroque stairway. “We realized we had to get everything technically right for this great museum so it would function at 300 percent every day,” she says. With a large team of engineers, programmers, scientists, artists, and seamsters, among others, every component of Shylight was reworked and refined, a five-year task completed in 2014.
Benefitting from that technology, the Shylights that NYCB audiences will see are pre-programmed—or choreographed, as Gordijn, a former dancer, likes to say—to the millimeter, to evoke nature’s wonders. The traffic patterns of theatergoers on the Promenade, their perceived energy levels, and how the artists want the work to interact with audiences were factored into the equation. So was the music that will play throughout the vast Promenade. It took weeks for the programmers at DRIFT’s studio to create the precise choreography for the mechanical blossoms’ bloom and close. The choreography was, in fact, the biggest part of the NYCB project.
Given her love of dance, Gordijn was delighted to work with a ballet company, a first for DRIFT. The similarities between Shylight and dance are numerous, she says. Both art forms are about expressing emotion and ideas through movement.
“Though we work with machines, which are completely different from the body, it’s wonderful to see how with very small gestures you can communicate emotions everyone understands.”
She adds that the diaphanous silk skirts sported by the Shylights are white. “Like a lot of tutus.”
For Gordijn and Nauta, a favorite part of any project is watching audience members engage with their work and react to it. “It’s a magical moment when you see it awaken something in someone,” Gordijn says. “I’m so looking forward to watching the New York City Ballet audience interacting with Shylight.”
The 2023 Art Series installation will be displayed during NYCB’s Winter Season through February 26.