What is astounding about Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s vision is that it’s both holistic and philosophical in nature. De Keersmaeker, who is Belgian, heads a dance company, Rosas, established in 1983. In 1995 she created P.A.R.T.S. — Performing Arts Research and Training Studios — a contemporary dance school in Brussels that offers classes for both professional dancers as well as amateurs and children. The overall program is rich — it offers classes in ballet and contemporary dance, of course, but also in choreography, improvisation, and “body studies,” which, according to the website, “offer[s] a theoretical and practical reflection on the study of the body; these practices are not less artistic in themselves but serve to reinforce the artistic practice. Yoga classes are part of the P.A.R.T.S. program, as well as shiatsu, Pilates, Feldenkrais, anatomy, theater, music analysis, singing, rhythm, and theory — which includes dance history, philosophy, sociology, performance analysis, and art history — and this list is not exhaustive. The school offers macrobiotic meals in its cafeteria.
I thought of this while watching Rosas perform at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) last Sunday. The dancers seemed to be enacting Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of the rhizome. In their book A Thousand Plateaus (1980), the French philosophers write:
Unlike a structure, which is defined by a set of points and positions, the rhizome is made only of lines; lines of segmentarity and stratification … the rhizome pertains to a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detatchable, connectable, reversable, modifiable, and has multiple entranceways and exits and its own lines of flight.
The rhizome is non-hierarchical and non-binary; it includes everyone and does not differentiate between any preconceived models. You can see this in De Keersmaeker’s school and how it offers instruction to anyone who would like to learn. You can also see it in her work.
I arrived at MoMA before the performance, titled Work/Travail/Arebid, began. More people arrived as the music started up, presumably the result of hearing it and following it to its source. The majority of viewers were most probably not dancers or dance fans — mothers arrived with children in tow, families with cameras, couples. Many came, looked, and walked away, or left after sitting for just a few minutes. From where I was standing I could hear two women talking loudly, and this was not uncommon. In fact, it took me a good 40 minutes to be able to finally settle in. Before then, I had been too distracted by the chaos at hand. It was only when I realized this chaos was actually part of the performance — a factor De Keersmaeker had clearly considered and integrated into the dance — that I was able to become part of the action. Indeed, the performance was not meant to be something simply watched, and we were not meant to be spectators passively consuming art.
For Work/Travail/Arebid, De Keersmaeker reworked a previous piece she had performed at MoMA into a nine-hour cycle; each hour showcased different choreography, dancers, and musicians. When I arrived, at the beginning of the day’s performance, musicians on piano, flute, and variety of string instruments began playing minimal and chaotic music that would go on to shift in tone and sound along with the dance. Soon, one and then another dancer (seven in total) entered the performance space — by which I mean the small atrium area surrounded entirely by museumgoers who were sitting in a giant and messy circle. (When I say “messy” I do mean it — two couples sat within the circle and remained there.) The dancers wore similar clothing: khakis and, for the most part, T-shirts and sneakers. They matched enough but not entirely, which gave them cohesion without uniformity. They did not wear leotards and tights or obvious costumes, and they stood among the crowd of viewers; when it was time for them to dance, they entered the circle. The result of this was that they blended into the audience. The dancers were not lifted above the status of the viewers or of each other — there were no signifiers to help the audience ascertain who was better known or a so-called “principal.” Even as they moved differently, the dancers became lost in the crowd.
The hour of dancing I viewed was constructed of what appeared as a series of broken parts. The performers stood with arms drooping, faces dropped, and then moved, slowly. They ran and they fell, they walked and they jumped — always intentionally, while at the same time giving a sense of spontaneity. In this way, the dancers appeared as part of a larger, loose system, recalling the way bits and pieces of a machine work together but remain separate. The performers were both precise and athletic: at times they raced in circles or tumbled on the floor, but always remaining cognizant of the piano, the musicians, one another, and, of course, the audience. At a certain point, the piano was pushed across the room, along with the musicians, and as a result, the viewers who had been sitting or standing near it were forced to get up and move. In this way and others, we viewers were made aware of our own bodies and the space they take up. And by having to move, we became part of the performance.
The circular movement of the dance and the area in which it was performed overlapped with a series of circular lines drawn on the floor in chalk. Before the performance, several of the dancers had arrived and, by using florescent pieces of string hung on the museum wall, measured areas of the floor and marked the lines on it. The diagrams were reminiscent of De Keersmaeker’s previous performance at MoMA in 2011, Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich; both works respond to circles drawn in chalk on the floor. I have written elsewhere of how De Keersmaeker’s circles and chalk lines are reminiscent of the French “outsider thinker,” social worker, philosopher, psychiatrist, and writer Fernand Deligny’s mapping of the movements and gestures of autistic children. Deligny, who worked primarily with autistic children and created a series of camps for them, saw what he called “wander lines” as a means for the children to draw their movements and gestures and, in doing so, create a kind of language. In this way Deligny was not asking them to conform to his tongue or anyone else’s; instead, he attempted to see and metaphorically “hear” them speak their own language. Which brings us back to the rhizome, which is non-linear, non-hierarchal, and insists that we not conform to any model. Similarly, De Keersmaeker — by equalizing her dancers, integrating non-dancers into the performance itself, and constructing a whole of broken parts (dancers race and fall, drop and stand) — makes Work/Travail/Arebid into an enactment of something like the rhizome. It is a kind of communal performance in which everyone is welcome, where no one is better than anyone else.
Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker: Work/Travail/Arebid took place at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) on March 29–April 2.