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performance

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Work/Travail/Arbeid, 2015. Igor Shyshko, Marie Goudot, and Cynthia Loemij. Performance view, Wiels Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels, April 8, 2015. Photo: Anne Van Aerschot.

THE ART WORLD’S FASCINATION with relocating dance into the gallery has been gathering steam for well over a decade—and as of this spring it shows no signs of abating, despite the numerous conundrums that encumber the transition from theater to white cube. Of all the stage-to-gallery transpositions I’ve seen, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s recent exhibition at Wiels Contemporary Art Centre in Brussels resolved these dilemmas most impressively. This one-work show was based on the Belgian choreographer’s sixty-minute dance Vortex Temporum, first performed by her company Rosas in 2013. As a theatrical production, the piece opens with six musicians from the avant-garde ensemble Ictus seated onstage with their instruments. Seven dancers appear and gradually begin to move in circles or swing their limbs in spiral formations while following white chalk lines mapped on the floor in a mandala-like arrangement. The musicians also move around, following the same chalked paths, as they play Gérard Grisey’s eponymous 1996 composition, a challenging work by the late French composer and cofounder of “spectral music.”

Extremely difficult, somber, European-style high culture, then—and this was certainly how Vortex Temporum was received when first performed: The New York Times described it as “terribly hard work. . . . It is utterly dry and no fun at all,” while the London Telegraph called it “narcolepsy-inducing.” There was every reason to fear that the piece would be just as grueling at Wiels. Its new title, Work/Travail/Arbeid, did not bode well. But what made the production first endurable and then rapidly hypnotic was precisely its removal from the economy of evening entertainment and its invitation to watch over the course of the day, or week, or month. The hour-long stage work’s individual components—constellations of one, two, or three dancers—were fragmented into a nine-hour cycle of roughly one-hour phases, performed in a different sequence each day, for nine weeks, in light and airy galleries whose windows had been exposed for the occasion.

Most of these phases began with a solo musician followed by a solo dancer, or a pair of musicians followed by a pair or a trio of dancers, and continued to alternate between sound and silence until musicians and dancers eventually converged, circling around the space, tracing the curves mapped on the floor. Each phase followed a similar arc of energy: a painfully hesitant beginning; acceleration into circles within circles; uncoiling, holding, and twitching; and, finally, pausing, bending, and twisting the torso before unfurling to the walls and simply breathing.

In an interview, De Keersmaeker has likened the Wiels performance to both a rehearsal and a deconstruction of the 2013 theater piece. The consecutive presentations of individual constellations allowed patterns to emerge through repeat viewing, facilitating our grasp of the austere complexity of the work—which, like many of De Keersmaeker’s dances, is premised on a precise mathematical logic. Surprisingly quickly, I began anticipating the iteration of particular sequences. Watching Marie Goudot, Cynthia Loemij, and Sarah Ludi run in circles in the two adjacent spaces was a tantalizing yet perfectly calibrated frustration, as it was nearly impossible to view them simultaneously. I also longed for the final ten minutes of each phase: Regardless of which instrument was being played (cello, clarinet, flute), the sounds in those moments weren’t so much notes as aspirated, ghostly exhalations. Throughout the work, the dancers’ bodies seemed to arc and lever from the waist to produce spiraling movements of the spine. This echoed the work’s temporality as a “spiral of time”: not a simple loop but a constantly changing choreographic adjustment that the show’s curator, Elena Filipovic, describes as “accelerations, decelerations, expansions, or contractions.”

After so much conceptual (read: de-skilled) choreography in galleries, the unabashed virtuosity of Ictus and Rosas was exhilarating. But Work/Travail/Arbeid wasn’t simply a return to skilled traditionalism; it also innovated in its model of spectatorship. Dance in the museum usually encourages audiences to cling to the walls or huddle at the periphery of a designated performance area. At Wiels, the audience could drift into the chalked vortex, standing right next to the performers. De Keersmaeker has noted that this technique allows her to share with the viewer her perspective of the dance when she choreographed it, and Work/Travail/Arbeid gave every visitor access to this privileged position. Indeed, it was hard to avoid proximity with the dancers; at certain moments, you were mere inches from a vivid close-up not just of their movements but also of sweat on their foreheads and audible breathing.

Obviously, no viewer could see the entire work as it unfolded across nine weeks. But this indeterminacy and duration also opened up levels of experience not possible in conventional theatrical performance. So often, the relocation of dance into the museum results in an uneasy sense that the performers are continually present in the space like sculpture; choreographers rely on the spoken word to convey a sense of individual subjectivity. By contrast, Work/Travail/Arbeid was a daily labor of timing, training, repetition, effort, and endurance, thus reinforcing De Keersmaeker’s seemingly obvious but important observation: “Dancers are not objects.” While Work/Travail/Arbeid was stringently formalist, like so much of De Keersmaeker’s choreography, it was both in and out of sync with institutional time, resulting in the most extraordinary hybrid of performance and exhibition.

Claire Bishop is a professor in the Ph.D. program in art history at the CUNY Graduate Center, New York.