Choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker has staged dance in museums before, including at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2011 and the Tate Modern’s Tanks in London in 2012. With Work/Travail/Arbeid, 2015, which premiered at the Wiels Contemporary Art Centre in Brussels, and then traveled to the Centre Pompidou in Paris and to Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London, she has created a piece that is presented differently in each exhibition space. For six hours a day, March 29 through April 2, 2017, her dance company Rosas and the musicians from the ensemble Ictus will be performing the site-specific piece at the Museum of Modern Art. Workshops will be offered on the dance’s basic vocabulary and movement phrases.
WORK/TRAVAIL/ARBEID WAS FIRST PRESENTED as a nine-week exhibition at Wiels, which is literally down the street from where our company practices in Brussels. When the invitation came from Elena Filipovic and Dirk Snauwaert to create a new work, I was in full rehearsal for Vortex Temporum, a piece I choreographed in 2013 to the music of French spectralist composer Gérard Grisey. I began thinking about how this work would be perceived outside the condensed time and limited space of a codified theater performance, with dancers working during normal hours, in daylight. During rehearsal I don’t always sit in front but travel around the space in a circular way, watching and constructing sequences step by step, layer by layer. So before the black-box piece Vortex Temporum was made, I already had a desire to somehow include the audience. With Work/Travail/Arbeid, we literally shifted Vortex from black to white; from night to day; from artificial light to natural light; from distance to proximity; from fixity to fluidity.
One of the basic principles of Vortex Temporum, and of Work/Travail/Arbeid, is that each dancer is linked to a musician—there’s a piano player, a flute player, a clarinet player, and three string players. The visual counterpoint is built by following the music very closely, almost awkwardly so. That sort of close relationship is usually antithetical to contemporary dance: It is quite different from the Merce Cunningham and John Cage relationship, for example, where music and dance are completely independent, where chance decides which visual information coincides with which musical information. In this piece, the dance moves are an almost immediate kinetic response to the music. But the complexity of Grisey’s counterpoint approach seemed to avoid any old-fashioned redundancy. Most dance audiences and visual-art audiences perceive it as difficult music. It’s dense, there’s an absence of regular beat, and harmonically it’s extremely dissonant. This music is hard to categorize. Although it’s very structural, extremely layered, and complex, it’s still very natural and at moments even ritualistic. Based on his scientific research into sound, Grisey focused on the material attributes of sound, and eventually used procedures that are connected to Minimalism.
When the piece is performed you get a condensed version, highly contrapuntal, whereas in the white cube you get solos, duets, trios in different constellations, both musically and dance-wise. In the museum the audience are free to move and choose their places. Some people go to the side, some go right in the middle and sit in the vortex; they become part of the dance as soon as they move into the space, which is demarcated only by chalk lines. Children often start dancing. People perceive the energy and the labor that are being expended. In MoMA’s atrium there will be no art on the wall, just a clock and some ropes to draw circles on the ground, and these will be visible from the mezzanine. I’ve always been interested in circles. Spinning and turning are the most intuitive movements we execute when we dance. Circles also the most democratic geometric organization, with everyone the same distance from the middle.
The experience is in constant transformation. Over time there are different dancers, there are different combinations, and then of course the presence of the audience will have an effect. Even though the underlying geometry is precise and articulated, because of the physical presence of the audience it’s like water—it’s fluid, and the dancers adapt to the amount of mass and volume present in the space. There’s a nine-hour cycle that is choreographed, of roughly one-hour phases, and it shifts over the six hours that the museum is open. This means that if you come on Thursday at a specific time, the piece will look different than on Sunday at the same time.