PRINT December 2012

Claire Bishop

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Fase: Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich, 1982. De Keersmaeker perfoming movement 3, “Violin Phase,” July 19, 2012. Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

ONE OF THE FEW HIGHLIGHTS of this past summer’s Cultural Olympiad, the UK government’s austerity-busting spending spree, was the July opening of the Tanks, Tate Modern’s new gallery spaces. Back in the days when Tate Modern was a power station, the Tanks, located just south of Turbine Hall, held vast supplies of oil. Now these enormous structures have been converted into fully equipped circular spaces designed for performance, installation, and film—apparently the first museum galleries in the world to be dedicated to these modes, and a significant departure from the 1960s arts-center approach, in which activities were divided into either “white cube” galleries or “black box” theaters. The inaugural program, a fifteen-week festival called Art in Action, placed a strong emphasis on female artists using approaches hitherto somewhat marginalized in museum exhibitions, including structuralist film installation (Lis Rhodes) and social practice (Suzanne Lacy). Although this program has continued to develop and change since July, its singular and overwhelming achievement arguably took place during the opening week, when a production of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Fase: Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich, 1982, offered a generative new approach to staging dance in a museum context. As we know, dance in the white cube has been the institutional trend par excellence of 2012, but rather than resorting to the usual strategies—a handful of ticketed performances that sell out weeks ahead (as in the Whitney Biennial) or a display of video, photographs, and other ephemera (as in the Centre Pompidou’s “Danser sa vie” last winter)—the Tate chose to show De Keersmaeker’s historic work on repeat for three days straight.

First performed thirty years ago, shortly after De Keersmaeker finished her studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Fase comprises one movement for De Keersmaeker alone (“Violin Phase”) and three duets, performed here with Tale Dolven (“Piano Phase,” “Come Out,” and “Clapping Music”). Although the Tate offered ticketed performances of all four movements in the evenings, one movement of Fase was performed on the hour, every hour, for three afternoons. This fragmentation entailed a certain assault on the work and was surely exhausting for the performers but paid generous dividends to a nonspecialist public. People could walk in off the street and see one of the greatest European choreographers of her generation performing part of her signature dance, without an entrance fee—and then, if they were hooked, they could mill about and watch another movement. (For those wanting to know more, there was the launch of De Keersmaeker and Bojana Cvejić’s book documenting Fase and three other key works from the 1980s—an invaluable resource of interviews, ephemera, and complete dance notations.)

Fase is designed for a proscenium, but the circularity of the Tanks encouraged De Keersmaeker to present it in the round, allowing viewers to watch the work from different positions. One movement, Violin Phase, had been performed this way in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2011 (accompanying the exhibition “On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century”), but the choreographer had not previously subjected the other three movements to such a sculptural treatment. Lighting was stripped back to a sequence of fluorescent tubes, which exaggerated the work’s minimalism, as did the dancers’ concrete-colored dresses, which provided a fluid complement to the surrounding architecture. This postindustrial context also resonated with the work’s intensely technical mode of composition, based around sequences that shift from being performed in pristine unison to slipping out of sync so that, at moments, certain of the dancers’ identical movements are set against each other. For some members of the audience, this repetition, abstraction, and lack of narrative were almost impossible to tolerate—but if you immersed yourself in Reich’s sonic phase shifting and De Keersmaeker’s visual patterns, this austere seriality delivered a range of penetrating emotions.

Part of what makes Fase so affecting is that it somehow communicates the poignant quality of its own belatedness. It is the work of a young Belgian choreographer who came to New York in 1981 and confronted the legacy of Minimalist dance and music, both of which had flourished a generation earlier. Reich composed the music that accompanies Fase between 1966 (“Come Out”) and 1972 (“Clapping Music”), while De Keersmaeker’s intensely repetitive gestures are indebted to Merce Cunningham, who similarly required great physical stamina of his dancers. The attenuated simplicity of the Judson Dance Theater—especially Trisha Brown (e.g., Accumulation, 1971) and Lucinda Childs (e. g., the “knee plays” for Einstein on the Beach, 1976)—is also present in the work.

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Fase: Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich, 1982. De Keersmaeker (left) and Tale Dolven performing movement 4, “Clapping Music,” July 19, 2012. Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

But in the fifteen or so years between Fase and the heyday of US Minimalism, clear differences emerged. Although De Keersmaeker’s work requires insanely disciplined repetition (the dancers’ concentration can’t slip for a nanosecond), there is always a sense of flirtation and sly luxuriance in her performance of this mathematically demanding work. A flick of the skirt to reveal white knickers, a smile or a sigh: These flashes of enjoyment and frustration serve to puncture the hammeringly rigorous structure. As De Keersmaeker observes in the book, “I hide neither the pain nor the pleasure in this struggle of unfolding precise, complicated patterns over a long period of time.” The result, for me, was an exquisite, almost ecstatic exhilaration—simultaneously sensual and cerebral—attained through immersion in a hypnotically complicated structure.

At a performance conference during the opening week of the Tanks, an audience member raised the question of the Tate’s imbrication in a neoliberal economy of spectacle and culturetainment. It struck me that even if this is partly true—the Tate is a public institution but also relies on corporate sponsorship, and is in fact the poster child for the contemporary megamuseum—certain works of art elude co-optation by such forces. In the case of Fase in July, this was due to both the informal generosity of the work’s presentation and its intrinsic difficulty and depth. Steeped in Minimalist abstraction, Fase fuses a set of basic childhood movements (jumping, spinning, swinging arms) to an image of industrial modernity. The two dancers in “Come Out” perform on chairs, in shirts and trousers, evoking an office or factory assembly line. The repetitive patterns cut by their swooping arms and folding bodies form a synthesis of human and machine, a consummately twentieth-century trope that persists today, as relevant in the digital era as it was in the time of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. To be able to watch the tour de force of Fase for free, and to have the luxury of learning this work through repeated observation, brings home afresh what gifts and privileges can still be made possible by the public museum.

Claire Bishop is an associate professor in the Ph.D. program in art history at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.