How does the body sculpt space
The gaze → the movement of a limb.
These are notes an art historian colleague of mine took from a lecture by the choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, who was in New York last March to present her piece Work/Travail/Arbeid at the Museum of Modern Art. In this moment of the lecture, De Keersmaeker extended her arm forward to exhibit one of the choreography’s sections. Yet, as she informed the lecture audience, this gesture could be wholly modified if the dancer looked in the opposite direction from where their arm reached. Thus, to return to the notes, the body could “sculpt space” by combining the social act of the “gaze” with the more bluntly somatic act of lengthening a limb. This seems to be De Keersmaeker’s signature talent in “Work,” the capacity to locate the corporeal vocabulary of dance in an expanded interpersonal field, to understand spectatorship as contested deliberation between people. If performance in gallery space has so often felt like adjunct programming for visual art, De Keersmaeker made the case for performance’s unique capacities within the museum.
Part of the social tension in “Work” was no doubt an outcome of the complex design that structures De Keersmaeker’s choreography. As press materials will tell you, Work/Travail/Arbeid, first performed in Brussels in 2015 at WIELS, is an adaptation of De Keersmaeker’s 2013 Vortex Temporum, set to a 1995 musical composition by Gérard Grisey of the same name. Vortex Temporum comfortably resides in a dance program as an hour-long piece performed on a proscenium stage, while Work/Travail/Arbeid is an expansion into the exhibition format (or what the dance’s original curator, Elena Filopovic, has called the exhibition “protocols”). In Brussels, De Keersmaeker first stretched out the earlier work into a nine-hour cycle. In New York, continuously occurring from March 29 to April 2 in MoMA’s large central atrium during public hours, spectators could watch for however long and however fully they might desire.
Depending on when you happened upon the piece, Rosas’s dancers could be in the middle of a somber, carefully articulated duet or swept up in a buoyant series of maneuvers. Grisey’s score worked similarly, oscillating with not a small amount of tonal violence between plodding chordal passages and vertiginous cascades of notes. Sometimes only the ensemble Ictus, who was providing music for the piece, occupied the central stage; with their numerous positions around the atrium and their emphatic delivery, they functioned as choreographic components in their own right.
I saw the work multiple times over several days, and from mere observation, I couldn’t really ascertain the dancers’ patterns. Moreover, the work’s nine-hour sequence didn’t correspond with the museum’s six-hour daily schedule, so that no regularity was guaranteed if you returned to the piece at the same time the following day. Yet no matter how “Work” eluded one’s powers of apprehension, the very cyclicality of Work/Travail/Arbeid entered the viewer as its own kind of embodied knowledge, as Claire Bishop observed in her review of the WIELS exhibition. Familiar phrases, musical sections, and individual gestures repeated themselves intermittently. One could track more obvious permutations, such as the entrance of a duet by two dancers, then two musicians, and then the resulting quartets as they occurred over time. And as astute critics such as Jason Farago and Laura Weigert have identified, several sections, or in De Keersmaeker’s lexicon, “constellations,” followed a physical logic of expansion. The circle of a dancer’s spinal rotation broadened into a broader ellipsis, along which dancers would run at full speed. These “laps,” as it were, were De Keersmaeker’s base units; they acted as clearing movements that gathered space, accelerated rhythm, or when performed backwards, seemed to set time into reverse. Such broad passages were shrewdly punctuated by spiky phrases or athletic leaps upwards. De Keersmaeker’s choreography managed to naturalize calculation so that it became nearly exuberant lyricism.
If my description rings breathlessly, perhaps it’s a subconsciously mimetic effort at capturing the exertion on the part of both ensembles. As Farago notes in his review for The New York Times, commenting on the piece’s trilingual title, “This is not a work as in art work (oeuvre in French, werk in Dutch). This is ‘work’ as in labor, or practice: the slow and serious development of quality over time.” The company’s physical toil was apparent in multiple registers: De Keersmaeker’s performers wore running shoes and tasteful white outfits which quickly became translucent with sweat. The performers’ breathing, and straining to breathe, was often audible to the audience. If dance’s labor was sensuously perceptible, it was conceptually so as well: the nine-hour cycles of Work/Travail/Arbeid mirrors the timing of shift work. Dancers clocked in, and they clocked out. Additionally, the constant sonic presence of “Work” throughout the museum made its dancers and musicians’ productivity palpable during guests’ casual day at MoMA. One’s very non-productivity as an audience member felt pronounced in comparison to the artistic and physical expenditure at times only inches away.
I like to think that in its showcase of virtuosity and sheer effort, De Keersmaeker’s work touched on a kind of hostility, however latent, between performer and viewer. On the surface, the spectatorship of Work/Travail/Arbeid obeyed the conditions of a buzzworthy museum production. The audience assiduously recorded the proceedings on their phones and maintained a respectfully distanced proscenium formation, no matter that the piece expressly allowed patrons to travel anywhere on the atrium floor during the course of the dance. But such a compromise was hard-earned: in their rapid orbiting around the space, Rosas carved out (or again, “sculpted”) the performance area, forcing seated spectators to scramble to the side; errant children or inattentive viewers were deftly dodged by dancers. Work/Travail/Arbeid traded on that tension between the spectatorial desire to both consume performance and obey its conventions. If you tried to get close enough to get a selfie, you watched yourself become a public obstacle. To turn the museum into a space of conflict before acquiescence injected risk, however symbolic, into an institution that more often than not favors the conservative before the threatening.
Joseph Henry is a PhD student in the Art History program at the CUNY Graduate Center, and has written for publications including Art in America, The New Inquiry, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. Starting September 2017, he will be a Helena Rubinstein Critical Studies Fellow in the Whitney Independent Study Program.