BRUSSELS — On a cloudy Thursday afternoon, on the second floor of WIELS Contemporary Art Centre, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker sat at a long, white banquet table with her head in her hands. The reasons for the Belgian choreographer’s gesture of cranial distress were unclear. Perhaps the barometric shifts were bringing on a migraine. Perhaps it was simple exhaustion. Perhaps she was dreading the press conference about to unfold. Whatever she was thinking, her body language was screaming to the hundred or so journalists assembled to hear about “Work/Travail/Arbeid” that she’d rather be just about anywhere else.
De Keersmaeker exploded in the early ’80s with “Rosas Danst Rosas,” a minimalist choreography later adapted as a film (made further famous as unacknowledged source material for Beyoncé’s “Countdown” video). Known for her stripped-down choreographies of repetitive gestures for long stretches, she was a unique voice against the backdrop of late post-modern dance that emerged two decades earlier. She’s since won countless awards, had her works performed hundreds of times in five continents, and in 1995 she founded P.A.R.T.S., one of the world’s preeminent dance schools.
WIELS proposed the collaboration two years ago, likely hoping to cash in on the trend of ‘museum pieces’ by Boris Charmatz, Xavier Le Roy, and Tino Sehgal. When the invite came, De Keersmaeker was in the midst of creating “Vortex Temporum,” a piece for seven dancers and six musicians based on a 1996 work by French composer Gérard Grisey. Faced with the offer to do more or less as she pleased, she had two options: devise an entirely new work in response to the space or adapt an existing choreography as an exhibition. She chose the latter.
As the press junket begins, De Keersmaeker lifts her head. She manages a slight smile as she’s introduced, but remains largely silent with curator Elena Filipovic doing most of the talking. The work’s investigation, Filipovic says, began with asking what it would mean for dance to be performed as an exhibition — taking the conventions of the stage and asking what happens when dancers are governed by the rules of the museum. The result was to stretch “Vortex Temporum”’s original 55 minutes into a nine-hour cycle, performed continuously while the gallery was open.
The crowd is oddly silent, asking only one question (a small technical clarification). After a brief pause for cake and coffee, we truck upstairs for the showing. Fourteen dancers, in shades of white, are assembled along with six musicians. What we’re about to see, De Keersmaeker says, is not the complete work but “raw material.”
In keeping with her minimalist roots, the space is unadorned (besides the addition of a clock). Illuminated with natural light, the atmosphere shifts according to time of day and weather. The dancers and musicians follow their tracks through the space, navigating the introduction of audience members, avoiding collisions by modifying their trajectories slightly, occasionally gently touching people when approaching them from behind to signal their presence. Though there’s literal contact, beyond that, the performers don’t acknowledge us, maintaining contemporary dance’s signature neutral gaze.
Even with only a hundred people, the crowd is in the way. De Keersmaeker stomps back and forth in her high-heels, shooing the audience out of the way with slight flicks of one hand, the other holding a toothpick she’s aggressively chewing on. Thirty minutes earlier she’d expressed a desire to examine how the relationship between the performers and the audience shifts by adapting a proscenium work to a white cube space. But it becomes quickly obvious we are largely an annoying afterthought.
A week later, I pay another visit. De Keersmaeker is there, but looks more relaxed. She’s ditched her heels for runners and seems content to let the performance unfold on its own. Two dancers are moving very slowing as I enter, moisture seeping through their t-shirts. People mostly yawn and poke at their phones, though some watch intently. New audience members look oddly confused as they walk in, taking a moment to recognize what is happening before they join the rest of us seated against the walls.
As the performers come to a standstill, the audience abruptly applauds. Apparently something has finished. It is an essential element of theater, but here, applause is an odd gesture. Are we watching a dance piece or an exhibition? A blend? Something else? We know from the talk that De Keersmaeker wishes to draw clear boundaries around the forms she is addressing. Dance means proscenium pieces (no mention of site-specific or durational works) and exhibitions mean static objects (no reference to time-based works). The audience’s relationship to the work tells us something else, however. What we are watching has more in common with good, old-fashioned performance art than anything else.
A certain branch of performance artist views performance as process rather than product. Watching a performance artist perform is like watching a painter paint a painting. The work lives not in the moment it is formed, but in the documentation. While theater aims at rapt attention, performance art doesn’t care if you’re bored, which as best as I can tell is what is happening here. Understanding the technical precision of what is unfolding over the exhibition’s nine weeks by reading the work’s description gives one a lot to think on. Watching it happen is a light sedative.
So how can one understand “Work/Travel/Arbeid”? A generous reading would say De Keersmaeker, three decades in, is at a new beginning. However naively, she is pushing her work in new directions, participating in the emerging conversation around dance in the museum, and asking us to rethink our conceptions of dance, exhibitions, space, and time. A more cynical interpretation would be, when offered the chance to create a new work, she repurposed an old one, hoping recycling could stand in for originality. It’s sad to see one of dance’s most important figures expend so much time, money, and (apparent) headaches, simply to tell us she’s out of ideas.
Work/Travail/Arbeid continues at the WIELS Contemporary Art Centre (Av. Van Volxemlaan 354, Brussels) through May 17.
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