Choreography in the Garden

Parc de Gerland. Lyon, France. Photo by John Harper, 2005.

By John L. Harper, MALA

John earned his Master of Landscape Architecture degree from the University of Georgia College of Environment and Design in 1996. Upon completion of his MLA, he worked in Atlanta for several years where he first got his license to practice. He is now principal at Studio 169 Landscape Architecture in Winnipeg and teaches part-time for the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Manitoba.

In contrast to the earthy realities of soil and plants, the beguiling imagery of gardens often comes to us from art and advertising. We cannot enter these images as we enter a garden, but we often dream of making our gardens like them. As creators of gardens large or small, most of us dream of beautiful places that we never see fully realized. We know that we can never quite capture our dream garden and hold it in a perfect moment. I would suggest that we do not need to, and that a more meaningful relationship may be found through an often-overlooked aspect of garden design—choreography and its open-endedness.

Consider, for example, the meadow garden in its many variations conjuring a gardener’s dream of flowering plants en masse, surrounding us on all sides, so many that we walk over them and dance through them. But as Dorothy found in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, vast meadows of beautiful flowers may present us with new and complex challenges. Obviously, in this case the choreography went astray of the yellow brick road, with Dorothy and her friends instead skipping merrily through a meadow filled with poisonous poppies, which brought them close to their doom. Even the gardener risks toxic results when we try too hard to realize the images that we see in garden publications and design magazines. There is a better way.

When we fully immerse ourselves in the materials of a garden, we return to our humanity, our earthly origins. Imaginary gardens deny us the intimate relationship with nature we crave. Although we are inundated by the appeals of advertisers to first buy into the dream of limitless beauty in our gardens and then to achieve this at any cost including toxic chemicals, this disrupts the connection to nature we seek to create. If we see the garden image on a digital screen and with our feet flat on the floor, we remain safely unenlightened. Instead, I propose that we must venture out, and choreography offers many opportunities to do so.

Choreography, the design of sequences of movements for physical bodies is an important, but often unnoticed element of successful gardens. It is one way of opening a dialog with a garden. Is choreography not for dancers, you ask?

Jack Howard-Potter. Dancer 10. Mathews-Sanders Sculpture Garden, Delta State University, Cleveland, Mississippi. Photo by John Harper, 2019

Perhaps, but famously Anna and Lawrence Halprin, he a landscape architect and she a dancer and choreographer, helped bring new ideas to designers about choreographing the movement of people in space in a process intended to foster environmental awareness. Their proposals were “scored” for environmental situations with the final performance left open-ended. (1) Gardeners who use this approach need not go to the same lengths as the Halprins, but if you consider each walk you make on your garden path a small performance in collaboration with the plants, the wind, the sun, the rain, and snow, you leave the results open to new, alternate garden realities.

Pedestrians. Parc de la Villete,Paris, France. Photo by John Harper, 2005.

As I have suggested, your garden vision and the path system you design for it clearly need to have a conceptual as well as pragmatic relationship. No matter the style you choose for your garden, access for maintenance as well as pleasure will be a necessity. But the path to your plants, its proportions, and its materials, is the way by which you and visitors will interpret your garden. What if you design this “access” to accommodate weddings, birthdays, and cocktail parties as well as the transport of compost? You and your guests benefit from a subtle reminder to be aware of the environment. In that sense, the movement of people about a garden should be natural and comfortable and afford one a pleasant view of the garden’s main attraction—plants. But we do not want to simply stand and stare as if we are at an old-fashioned zoo; we want to interact, so I am with the Halprins in designing choreography for the garden.

Parc André Citroën. Paris. Photo by John Harper, 2005.

Seldom do gardeners daydream during the long winter months about where we are going to walk in our garden visions. The mundane notion of pedestrian circulation may seem to you the territory of city landscape architects with their sidewalks and trees in grates. But the routes we take in a garden need not be simply linear paths from A to B and C; rather they may flow in such a way that we participate more fully in the garden experience, thereby heightening our awareness of nature and the environment. If you allow circulation in your garden to occur by default, you ignore the critical shaping of garden spaces and their relationships to one another.

Open-ended performances may occur with humans in “nature” rather than viewing nature. Plan your dance as well as you select the plants who will be your partners. Consider a hierarchy of path sizes, a broad path for the showiest part of your garden, a narrow path to the compost heap. Choose beautiful materials to complement your plantings: stone, gravel, brick, mulch, and even turfgrass all make excellent pathway surfaces.

Parc du Sausset, Villepinte, France. Photo by John Harper, 2005.

Create mystery with hidden curves that make small gardens look bigger. Locate terminal points for specimen plants, sculpture, or bird baths. And do not forget that night lighting can lengthen your enjoyment time in the garden. With all these tools at your disposal, you become the choreographer of a garden design that is open to infinite possibilities.

Vannan Garden. Winnipeg. Photo by John Harper, 2012

(1) Alison B. Hirsch, “The Collective Creativity of Anna and Lawrence Halprin,” GIA Reader 27, no.2 (Summer 2016).