Premiered at WIELS, Brussels art center, in March 2015, Work/Travail/Arbeid by Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, is an exquisite exhibition of dance specifically conceived for the gallery space. In collaboration with the visual artists Ann Veronica Janssens and Michel François, De Keersmaeker reconfigured her 2013 proscenium piece Vortex Temporum to devise an exhibition open to the public everyday from 11am to 6pm and composed of expanding spirals of movements. At the end of this month, Work/Travail/Arbeid will be recreated at Centre Pompidou in Paris. It will then tour to Tate Modern in London this summer and will eventually come to New York in 2017 where it will be presented at MoMA. In conversation with Performa curator Charles Aubin, the choreographer discusses here her conception of dance, her relationship to the white cube, and her keen interest in the New York avant-garde among many other fascinating topics.
Charles Aubin: First, I’d like to hear you elaborate on a phrase, which regularly comes up when you talk about your choreographies; you describe them as “liquid architectures”. I’d like to know how this organizational principle operates for you.
Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker: It’s something that is related to the body, the architecture of our bone structure, of the human skeleton, it’s both a vertical and a horizontal architecture. For me, the very definition of dance might be “architecture in movement”. Since my very first piece, Violin Phase, there’s been an underlying geometry to all of my works. In the case of that early piece, it’s a circle that is formed as I trace the pattern with my feet. Every choreographer works differently, but for me, what connects my various pieces is a certain way of writing and ordering space, adding more complexity and layers along the way, but always starting from a specific geometric principle, which is very often provided by the music. It might be based on the mathematical, but it’s not something strict or rigid or even pinned down, it’s actually a structure that becomes liquid. I take a grid in order to leave that grid and go beyond it. For me it’s a home that I can leave and that I can come back to.
That being said you can have very diverse approaches to music. Your use of Brian Eno’s music in Golden Hour (As you like it) is quite different from Steve Reich’s music in Violin Phase. Would you say that your relationship with music has evolved?
The nature of the relationship between dance and music is always very specific to the nature of the music itself. With Reich, where music is a process, I worked on very small patterns that are repetitive and then on slight accelerations and decelerations to create shifts. I often create a piece based on a certain “translation” from the music, from its structure, methodology, or its conceptual underpinnings, but it is never a simple one-to-one relationship, and it is rarely a translation in a literal sense. With Work/Travail/Arbeid, I worked through Gérard Grisey’s Vortex Temporum, which I had first developed for the stage and then reinterpreted for an exhibition. In this piece, the source of inspiration of how to write dance was found in the movements of the musicians when they’re playing their instruments. I was looking at the physicality of the cello player or the flutist, at their gestures. Here the liquid aspect you mentioned is also linked to Grisey’s musical architecture, based on vortices, circles that expand and condense in time. That was the inspiration for the piece initially created for a stage. In the black box version you see it from one angle, and you generally see it further away, in the exhibition version which was first presented at WIELS and will open soon at the Centre Pompidou, spectators and performers are on the same level, sharing the same space.
In fact, in the past five years that you’ve presented works in gallery settings, we can see a progressive shift in the place assigned to the audience. While you allowed multiple viewpoints but kept the audience at distance in Violin Phase at MoMA (2011) and Fase: Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich in Tate Modern’s Tanks (2012), with Work/Travail/Arbeid, on the contrary, you let the audience come in and out of the dancers’ space.
Indeed, at MoMA or at the Tate there was a marking on the floor, a clear delimitation of the space for the dancers and the space for the visitors; the audience was invited to be around the piece but not merge with it or enter into it. The works also had clear beginning and end times, much like a performance in a theatre. With Work/Travail/Arbeid, the whole piece was conceived and constructed differently. The audience was allowed inside it, so that the movement could be viewed from various angles and experienced as a vortex, one in which you are absorbed physically and even temporally. Maybe it’s a bit like in the Francis Alÿs film Tornado where he enters sand storms and films it.
I also noticed that you chose to not coordinate the art centre’s opening hours (7 hours a day) with the 9-hour long piece, was it a way to claim your own autonomy?
In a way, yes, although it was more about insisting that unlike the theater, where a piece has a defined beginning and end time, the phase shifting of the cycles in the exhibition means that you can’t easily pin down the beginning or the end of the piece. As a visitor, you also couldn’t come back, say, every day at noon on your lunch break and be in the same place in the piece. In general, I like when things are the same and then start to shift. Something might seem to be the same but then progressively becomes different. This creation of small temporal shifts was also connected to Ann Veronica Janssens’s proposition to only use natural daylight to illuminate the piece; we had in mind that the weather would also modify the perception of the piece as the sun and changing clouds moved across the building.
Ann Veronica Janssens, as well as Michel François, are visual artists with whom you regularly collaborate. Can you tell us more about your conversations with them?
I worked with each of them individually and also together. For The Song, we conceived the whole concept of the piece together. For the more recent performances we collaborated on, it mainly became a practice of looking and thinking together. I come up with propositions and ask for their feedback. Ann Veronica takes me to look at things that are already here but that I didn’t necessarily see myself. Both Ann Veronica and Michel have helped me to articulate, in a visual way, the logic that is for me evident when I deal with movement. They often propose one single but strong intervention. For example, at WIELS, Ann Veronica suggested we remove all the non-supporting exhibition walls and let the natural light in. It’s always to get to a simple, strong idea, in the most concrete way. I could say that each of them assists me in being even more radical and minimal.
You speak about being minimal, which to me echoes some 1960s dance experiments in New York with the Judson Dance Theater. I’d love to hear you speak about this group, especially also in regards to your use of “pedestrian movement” (e.g. running, walking) that one can find in the works of Yvonne Rainer or Steve Paxton. Your use is obviously different, but I’m wondering whether that crowd was an inspiration for you, and if it was perhaps a reason why you studied in New York in the early 1980s?
Oh, yes, the reason I went to New York in the 1980s was definitely related to that scene, but also to the way the whole history of American modern dance is linked to that city. I was definitely looking at the work of people who were at Judson, like Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown too, Lucinda Childs and Steve Paxton, whose work I saw before I left for New York. I think I was very attracted to the whole American avant-garde in theatre: for instance the Wooster Group’s Performing Garage, and Bob Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach was an especially crucial moment for me. My experience in New York was exceptional because while I was studying at NYU, I had the opportunity to see a lot of performances, and not only in the downtown scene, but also a lot of Broadway musicals. The performing arts scene of the 80s was a different one than the scene in the 60s and 70s, with people like Karole Armitage in dance, or John Zorn in jazz.
Did you put yourself in conversation with the Judson and the idea of Avant-garde when you started conceiving dance?
I think that I always considered myself as a choreographer working in a space between the so called avant-garde and something more traditional. I see myself as a formalist in a classical sense; I might be old-fashioned in that way, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to find radicality in that. I do love Bach, Beethoven, and I do love Steve Reich and I do love John Coltrane, and I don’t find that conflictual. I’ve always had a very strong relation with tradition.
As something to be challenged or to be expanded?
As different ways of ordering; if making choreography is ordering time and space. For me it is inspired by the order that I see in nature. Take for example how geometry organizes nature. Classical rules of architecture, think about Leonardo da Vinci, and classical treaties about proportions are my sources of inspiration. I have always stolen from both these and from the experimental avant-garde. I don’t consider them as opposed or contradictory, and I never had a problem with tradition. I see them as all the same manifestation of different degrees of energy.
In your nine weeks at WIELS you were in a gallery space almost every day. Is there anything special you discovered that now informs the way you conceive dance for the stage?
You know, I haven’t learned all the lessons from it yet. I am still thinking through it.
And what about the dancers? How did they negotiate their relationships with an audience that was growing and even coming back, spending hours in the gallery with them?
Well, it completely changed their experience and their way of performing. It was very different on days when there were 200 or 300 people, and the spectators became a mass, physically, versus days with only a few visitors. It never happened that there was nobody, although we made the deal from the very beginning that if that would be the case, the dance would go on, like in a normal museum situation. What I found was the biggest challenge was how to resolve the “fourth wall”: how could the dancers stay in the intensity of their moment even when someone was watching them very closely? And I must say, what was quite interesting was to see how the audience organized itself. Certain people were stubborn and stayed where they were regardless of the dancers’ movements. But the dance is based on contractions and expansions, and so if there was another volume coming across the dancer’s trajectory, whether a pillar, a wall or a spectator, we were not going to bump against it, we were going to adapt, to be fluid around it. I think when the performers went back to dance in a theatre they felt people were very far away. They couldn’t see how people were reacting and they missed the proximity.
Recently there’s been a great amount of choreographers presenting works in the white cube. One can think of Xavier Le Roy’s Retrospective or Boris Charmatz’s Expo Zéro for instance. What was striking for them was that they decided to put language and speech at the heart of their experiments in a very “discursive” way. On the contrary, you stuck to what you consistently explore, i.e. dance in relationship with music.
Yes, it was clear for me. And the invitation, I should say, was not to become something different from what I am, or to reinvent my dance principles for an exhibition, but to find a way of presenting what I do and what I have done in dance for several decades now in an extreme but also precise way. Thus I wanted to enter the gallery with the body and I didn’t want fixity. I wanted to present “vibrating bodies”, that’s the place where I come from. Dancers are not objects! Also I really thought what was at stake was the experience of the moment. I wanted to combine the notion of duration with the collective experience, but in a gallery space the group of spectators can be mobile and fluid. Moreover, dancers don’t leave any traces, nothing that could be turned into goods for speculation. And to me, this is directed towards systems of production. We really felt it clashed with the visual arts’ economy. I should add that one of the piece’s challenges was to create a dance based on daily movement but delivered with high virtuosic dancing and precision. I wanted a dance that would become sovereign. I wanted it to be clear for the audience and I wanted it to be articulated in relation to the music.
However, most of your works require precision and virtuosic dancing. Did you want to push it further with this exhibition?
Well, I think that I had some questions about seeing a lot of dance that consciously refuses this aspect of the dancing. But in my work, precision and skill have always been at the heart of each piece and I wasn’t going to change that all of a sudden. So with this exhibition, if you invite me, that is, if you invite the kind of dancer-choreographer that I am and if you want to have dancers, you have to pay for the skills of those dancers. This obviously creates a clash with the whole economic system of the visual arts, which is based on a different logic—a logic of shipment and insurance value and fixity. To show Work/Travail/Arbeid requires money for the labour involved, and it’s problematic because what we do is so fleeting: we don’t leave traces, there’s nothing to buy or sell, and no one can speculate on it. The question is, then, do you want to pay for the labour? The title puts that really to the forefront of the project—it’s about work, in the many senses of the word. But there were other fundamental questions that emerged from the project, such as: At what moment does dance performed in a gallery space become an exhibition? Since we know that the conventions of theatre might still persist even when one is not physically in an actual theatre, how much does it take to abolish those? And, if the space we are in is not a theatre and not quite the gallery space as it was before, and definitely not a marketplace, but it is clearly public, then what kind of public space are we in? What is my relationship to the community here? Do I have to respect this person who is working in front of me? Can I take a picture of him or her from up close? Do I have to move away when I realize I am in someone else’s path of movement? You very often saw that people were a little bit confused about all it. We were in a space where so much was rendered unclear. Codes were clashing.
This interview was initially published in Art Press’s February 2016 issue (www.artpress.com).