Progress in work
For the next 4 weeks the Contemporary Art Centre in Brussels, Wiels, is transformed into a working space, not only for its employees. Temporarily, it is the working environment of Belgium’s famed choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaecker (b.1960, Malines). She has emptied two floors of all unnecessary furnishings and fitted them with a wooden floor suitable for dancing upon. This will be the stage for her exhibition: Work/ Travail/ Arbeid.
Like a prototypical Brussels press conference which is given in three languages, this exhibition title too is in three languages. It is a signifier of the multilingual atmosphere in which the choreographer works, day to day. For those who know her, the title is also particularly fitting to her character. It alludes to her workaholic nature for which she is renowned.
Every hour that the museum is open you will find her chosen dancers performing to live music upon the upper floor. The floor underneath is reserved especially for De Keersmaecker to contemplate and create. Over the duration of this exhibition, she will be working on a newly commissioned piece which will be premièred at the end of the exhibition period. She describes it as a ‘progress in work’ rather than ‘work in progress’.
Time of whales, humans and insects
When De Keersmaecker was approached by Wiels to have an exhibition, she was working on a dance piece for the theatre stage called ‘Vortex Temporum’. It was named after its musical score created by the French contemporary composer Gérard Grisey. His musical composition was roughly one hour long and she created a performance matching its duration.
The central concept of this piece is time. It was described to me by one of the dancers, Igor Shyshko, as a ‘whirlwind of times’. He explained that the music and dance are composed of three impressions of times. The time of whales, being the slowest time, that of the universe. Then the time of humans, the rhythm of the heart beating. Then the time of insects, compressed time, with movements quicker than the eye can follow.
The complexity of the music, of these three states of time – extended, actual and compressed – left De Keersmaecker longing to expand her initial one hour composition. For this exhibition, she proposed to deconstruct her original choreography and construct a new piece allowing herself more time to work out new movements for each individual instrument. Breaking down what was once a whole, she began fastidiously to consider every possible combination of movement and sound until it spiraled into a 9 hour work.
During the press release, De Keersmaecker asserted that music is her first partner. Before movement, performers or dancers, she is driven by music. To perform Grisey’s formidable musical score she called upon Ictus, a contemporary music ensemble based in Brussels, to act in this paramount role. Dancers from Rosas, De Keersmaecker’s dance school, are paired off with the musicians, divided into the part of piano, flute, clarinet, cello, viola and violin. In the theatre piece, the musicians and dancers all engage in the one choreography. Now, each instrument and dancer may perform alone, together. You can witness the flute and the dancer who interprets the flute movements. Then in the next hour, you could meet the piano and its dancer. Layer by layer, hour by hour, her choreography unfolds. The gallery space in Wiels is only open 7 hours per day. This means that the nine hour cycle will continue the next day from where it was interrupted. In one gallery visit you could not see the whole composition as it loops on into the next day.
The spiral of time
Explaining that she has always been drawn to spirals and circles, De Keersmaecker describes her very first solo work ‘Violin Phase’ which was based on a circle. She shared with us that she arrived at this circle due to a desire to work with “slow processes, which go on and on and on. Minimalism and repetition in its most natural form (…)” She elaborates that “(…)the best way to explore this was to turn, to be in a circle, exploring all of the possible geometrical combinations and what the geometry of a circle means or contains.” She describes the importance of spirals “as essential, as nature, as DNA.”
The life pattern of this dance piece is mapped upon the floor with chalk lines which guide the dancers. It looks like a flower, made up of petals and circles. The dancers trace back the lines at each interval.
The intricately drawn pattern of this spiral is exemplary for her work method. She always makes sketches of the floor plans and dictates every movement on paper. If you are interested in seeing the notations of this mathematical mind, there are a selection of her drawings on display at Bozar, Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels.
Almost every movement in the exhibition hall is meticulously planned out by the choreographer. I say almost, as she can never anticipate the actions of the visitors. This will be the job of her trained dancers. The spectators will add another dimension to the piece. They, we, will create diversions in the mapped out steps by standing on the chalk pattern, alter the musical score by creating noises, stain the clean white look of the room by appearing in our eclectic fashions. The quieter but yet not subtler intervention will come from the daylight which penetrates the room.
Black and white equals grey tones and smudges
It is not exceptional that dance/performance breaks free of the black box and enters the white cube. But De Keersmaecker reminds us that this is a dance performance as an exhibition. It is not a performance inserted into an exhibition. Unlike her performances in the Tate Modern and in MoMA where she had scheduled performance hours, this performance runs the full duration of the exhibition. It is the exhibition. Anne Teresa De Keersmaecker describes the space in Wiels as “liquid space”. A situation without borders. For a change, the spectator is in the performance with multiple and dynamic viewpoints.
The protocols of a gallery space differ in almost every way from that of the stage. You can walk and talk in a gallery, whereas you would typically be quiet and seated in an audience. A gallery is open for more hours than your usual performance lasts. Then there is the contrast in light. Usually when a show commences we are hiding in the shadows, whereas now we are exposed to the brightness of the gallery. If we imagine how a performance usually occurs, we can talk of frontality. The vantage point of the viewer is clear. Not here, not in this space. As the pianist spirals round the room pushing his grand piano simultaneously on his circular path, the audience, decentralized, jumps out of his way. Dancers fleet past your nose or graze your back. You smell the energy. You are no longer at an agreeable distance from the stage, you are in it, on it, and without a script. You can feel their intense breathing and almost touch the adrenaline. Watching the sweat pour from their bodies, your eyes try to keep up with the choreography, which spans over two rooms. It is as if being in a living installation.
For De Keersmaecker, who was just awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement in Dance, it was important that this exhibition did not turn into a retrospective, showing only archival materials. It would have been a dishonour to her to have just a static exhibition. Instead, what is on offer is a dynamic exhibition and a continuation of her practice. It is in fact a process. She describes it as a long process and reflects that this piece is rather like this season, spring: a time of slow change.
Known for mathematics, geometry and formalism in her compositions, this piece is of no exception. But with each day beginning at a different stage of the choreography, with inspiring dancers, incredible musicians, and an unrehearsed, improvising audience, I believe that the composed, the coincidental and what organically buds in the space in between shall offer an exceptional show.
* All quotations from Anne Teresa De Keersmaecker are derived from the press conference at Wiels.
During the press release performance I had the fortune that Constance Neuenschwander, artist, dancer and alumna of Rosas, could join me as the photographer for this article.