Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker: Work/Travail/Arbeid: A Review Project by Laura Weigert

Interview with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker by Laura Weigert

Laura Weigert in Conversation with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker
Rosas/P.A.R.T.S., Brussels
June 3, 2016

The following conversation  is a transcript of an interview between Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Laura Weigert.

Laura Weigert: I got a chance to go to WIELS [Contemporary Art Centre], where I had never been before, on my walk from the train station; it’s a completely different space than Beaubourg [Centre Pompidou]. You haven’t talked that much about the performance exhibition at Beaubourg [Pompidou] and how different you found it to be in terms of its impact on its audience in that space as opposed to Work/Travail/Arbeid (2015) at WIELS.

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker: There were a number of very clear differences that first of all at WIELS we were in two spaces next to each other, so there were two vortices. At Beaubourg [Pompidou] we had one main vortex which we enlarged because the size of the space was too small in relationship to the proportions of the basic vortex, so I enlarged at Pompidou everything by thirty percent. In WIELS, we also had a wide space with daylight but the windows were high. So basically from outside you only saw like light you felt the changes of the sun going around whereas at Beaubourg [Pompidou], you had a lot of visual information because the level of where people were watching and were dancing continued through the windows to where people were walking. So both spaces were very impressive but very different. In WIELS you can see the pictures here. This is the space at WIELS: we have a vortex here and a vortex there. People were coming in here, so immediately you have the perspective of things happening simultaneously in two different spaces, and you were invited, or had to make a choice, whether you were going to travel from one space to another.
Weigert: So it invited the spectators to move.

De Keersmaeker: Yes, you see here was the first space and the second space was behind it and here, you can feel the depth. We took everything away; the space was totally empty. It was important for light but you see it was totally different from Pompidou where you saw people were walking.

Weigert: How did the situation in the city change the performance; you knew it was Brussels?

De Keersmaeker: You heard it [the city], the sun was turning around the space. But you didn’t have visual information, no cars or people walking outside; there was a higher degree of abstraction.

Weigert: What do you mean by a higher degree of abstraction?

De Keersmaeker: Well, since a lot of the movement for example in the choreography is based on simple walking and changing the parameter of time by going slow, accelerating, going in to running, walking in patterns, mostly in curved lines. Any spectator, any visitor who comes in is involved in the same movement, simply walking. So you perceive that. So that was same both in WIELS and Pompidou. But at Pompidou you also had people just walking, crossing (that basic movement that organizes peoples’ time and space) was constantly present inside the room and outside the room and you read the choreography as/on against that backdrop. At WIELS you worked with one tone: the walls are white, the costumes are also white. At Pompidou the whiteness of the costumes came out even more; there was a lot of information. There was a kind of different degree of liquidity, the space becomes liquid in a different way. 

Weigert: WIELS is closer to the white cube of the gallery?
De Keersmaeker: It is closer to the white cube, but then the specific space of WIELS, it is an old industrial building that has been transformed into a white cube and generally its rarer to have so much daylight that we opened up completely.

Weigert: Does the transformation from Vortex Temporum (2013) to Work/Travail/Arbeid represent an evolution of your craft?

De Keersmaeker: The question from WIELS to do this piece came while I was working on the black box version of Vortex Temporum. And where normally, as you know, that I’ve made over all those years over 35–40 performances, which have this fixed situation: of frontality, fixed time and space, beginning and end, the audience is sitting down, and what moves is what is on the stage, you are in a fixed place as a collective, it’s a collective experience, but as an individual you can’t decide you can’t individually organize your time and your space (besides by walking out before the end!). But while I was making it in this space (here in the rehearsal space) I started to watch it from all different angles because, as the title of this music says, Vortex Temporum, Spiral of Times. Spiral, it’s a circular movement of several notions of time, its not spiral of time but spiral of times. Multiple times, condensed times, stretched out time. I was naturally in the work process already going into that vortex that is a liquid space and looking at it from different angles, a different kind of minimalism. Instead of showing you this and that, or saying that you watch five minutes this and ten minutes that; I’ll allow you to watch it this way, and this way, and this way. It’s a different kind of minimalism; it’s inviting creating choreography that will change in each position. And you decide how long you watch it. I’m not going to do it like this but you can watch it there or there, not by its movement, but by your own. So you have right of detail, proximity, and the instrument with which the dancers work being the human body becomes extremely real. It’s not framed in a way that there is a distance.

Weigert: One of your goals is to think about finding the right frame to change perception, the perception of time and of space, and of dance. In what ways does this move from the black box to the white cube offer a new way of framing experience?

De Keersmaeker: The whole way, the whole rules and regulations of how to perceive dance when you put it in the theater, in a black box, the perception of the dance is radically different than when you perceive it according to the rules of the museum space. I think when we did it in both WIELS and Beaubourg [Pompidou] the feedback we got from a lot of people, from visitors and performers was that it is so different, for example, in the theater the darkness is a crucial element, we know since Wagner that we have the traditional being in the darkness and we watch what is in the light. But here as a collective in this space, you’re not only watching me dancing, but I watch you dancing, and I also watch you watching. There is a kind of a triangular relationship that happens: I watch you, I watch myself being watched, I watch you watching me both performing and dancing. It’s a totally different chemistry and especially the notion of proximity, detail, it changes completely the physical impact, the perception you have from when you are in the theater. And what is I think even as radical or more radical [is what happens] with the music. A lot of people, especially those who are used to going to see the visual arts, very rarely see how music is performed live and to see it in proximity and to see how sound is produced, how you perceive sound. Most of the time you perceive sound that has been technologically processed. Here you experience the relationship of the body with the sound and how it is produced, and how it produces space.

Weigert: Can you talk about the intermissions, or the intermèdes, when the dancers mapped out the circles. Did they create a kind of limit, a kind of stage?

De Keersmaeker: No, not really. They were circular not square. And they were not exclusive. When I did Fase (2012) at Tate Modern we drew a square and it was something that was not to be trespassed. And the same as when I did Violin Phase (2011) at MoMA [Museum of Modern Art]. So it was really different.

Weigert: An invitation to trespass? Expanding the limits beyond the walls to the people moving around in the city and looking in.

De Keersmaeker: What was peculiar at Beaubourg [Pompidou] was that it was easier to look from inside to outside than from outside to inside. Because of the nature of the glass: you had to go very close to the glass to see in.

Weigert: But a lot of people did. I was thinking about Paris in February and March, and what you were offering to the city at that time. The piece had particular resonance this year.

De Keersmaeker: Yes, this is true. Because of course it is very much a collective experience, which is also a collective physical experience. Which of course has been a very sensitive and vulnerable: it’s about the time we share and about the space we share. And how that is, how we can share it, and how it is crucial that it stays a place where you feel hopefully safe. Weigert: It will be interesting to see in London and New York whether any of that remains. You mention often this phrase, “what remains,” and my sense is that you are thinking more and more about what will remain of your work. And with Work/Travail/Arbeid  it seems as if we can make a list of what will remain by exposing dance: an expanded audience for dance, some recognition of the language or the grammar of dance and of music. Are there other things that you hope will remain in the memory of people who participated in the exhibition?

De Keersmaeker: The logic of us performing dance in a visual art space is so crucially different: we are not, dancers are not objects, we are not creating objects, we are creating experience. We are not speculative. We can’t create objects on which you can speculate or which can be sold; each time that dance exists it has to be embodied. That gives us a status apart, especially in an art market where the visual arts are extremely directed by those mechanics. The visual arts become like fluid or liquid real estate in that market. And dance will never be able to, by its very nature, by its DNA, it’s against that. Because it’s the idea and the experience that’s important, both the idea and how the idea is embodied, and if it’s not embodied you can raise the question of its very existence. At the same time I always say I think it’s the most contemporary of all arts because of the presence of the body: what is more contemporary than the human body? It’s of here and today, and it carries all the memory of not only our recent past but of our long past and all the potential of our future. I think we are at a crucial point in the history of mankind, especially in our relationship to technology and how you can create collective experiences without technology, and with the most ecological, natural, minimal, and maximal experience[s] that are linked through the human body: we share the time and we share the space. There is no other art form that has that in the same way. Where even with music. Dance can be extremely inclusive. It achieves a balance between embodied abstract forms and the same time concreteness. There is no other art that combines them in such a harmonious way, such an intense way. That’s what I really like about dance: it can embody the most abstract ideas, and you can do that individually and you can do that as a collective.

Weigert: But it is a craft, despite the language of identification and community there is also that moment in the piece when you realize what these dancers are doing—it’s work, it’s training.

De Keersmaeker: And it’s craft; yes this is true. I’m a big defender of craftsmanship. I think it’s also something that is very specific with dance and even in relation to music. If you want we can dance together outside. You without having your craft—everybody can dance. Everybody could dance together. There is no such a thing as someone who can’t dance. For music it becomes already more difficult: not everybody can, or you need to have an instrument or you need to have a voice; and especially collectively, if you want to sing a song together, we have to know the words, we have to know the melody. But basically on a very simple thing of mimetism, I can show you a dance and we can dance together.

Weigert: Yes, but I tried the dance workshop—it’s not so easy.

De Keersmaeker: No, but there is the thing: in Work/Travail/Arbeid there is craftsmanship. So dance as a medium can go from no craftsmanship at all to high virtuoso craftsmanship. And for me it was important to honor that craftsmanship. I think I’ve seen too much non-craftsmanship in museums where under the influence of the concept of “no dance” that limits extremely the complexity and the strength and the consistency of the compositional writing. And I’m somebody who is very much interested both in letting exist a high compositional writing and at the same just in experiencing, in celebrating by dancing together without having to know the steps. Where you don’t even have to know the difference between your left foot and your right foot. There is a very wide range in dance between somebody who can do, as they say in classical ballet, “twenty-five tours fouettés” or “tours en l’air,” and someone who does basically weight shifts.
Weigert: Yes in Work/Travail/Arbeid the people who had participated in the workshops wore stickers and there was a clear awareness of the difference between the way the spectators’ bodies were moving and the dancers. And being able to look at the two together highlighted the technique.

De Keersmaeker: Yes, absolutely. It highlighted the craftsmanship and the technique. It was also a challenge for the dancers not to work with a fourth wall, to be able to embody that craftsmanship but still to be in the here and now, and to relate to the people there.

Weigert: To get back to how dance is a privileged medium in terms of the way that it mediates between inside and outside. Music is a different medium. Can you talk about the intermediality about the piece: what about music is brought out in conjunction with dance?

De Keersmaeker: Since the very beginning I’ve always been interested in developing different strategies in this relationship between music and dance. To put it quite simply, I’ve always been interested in trying to find a choreographic writing that embodies what I love in the music. This is what fascinates me. And therefore, looking at underlying architectural structures and frameworks that sustain the building of musical writing and to give a choreographic answer to that by copying or counterpointing them. It’s always a marriage between music and dance.

Weigert: You’ve also discussed how one of the goals was to disentangle the fusion of the two: bringing out the specificity of both media, pinpointing the synaesthetic movement one goes through listening to music and looking at dance.

De Keersmaeker: Yes, that was the operation basically. Already in the black box version: how do you watch music and how do you listen to dance. I’ve had experience before working in and choreographing in silence where the movement becomes the music.

Weigert: Is that the parallel to removing visual access to the musicians to better see the music?

De Keersmaeker: Yes. Normally when you watch a performance you see and you hear at the same time. Here to a certain extent by taking one of those parameters away, the one remaining becomes stronger. When you see the musicians play, we never did that thing where they did the movement without the sound. Or where they made the sound without you seeing the music. The sound is in the prolongment [extension] of the body.

Weigert: There were moments when the dancers would take an instrument or bang on the piano, which highlighted this difference in an obvious way. De Keersmaeker: Or when the musicians play and the dancers [stomp, stomp, stomp] identify with the movement of the musicians and with the sound that is produced.

Weigert: Or the cellist walking with the cello. Music is often left out. I was bothered when people were talking. Visitors were aware of not hindering someone’s visual trajectory but they were willing to talk. There is a privileging of the visual in people’s response.

De Keersmaeker: I’m quite merciful [indulgent]. First of all, it’s a luxurious situation. People doing this work for you over such a long period of time and you can stay there all the time and people are performing for you continuously. That’s a luxury I think you have to experience.

Weigert: Yes, think of the cost of a ticket to the Paris Opera Ballet at [Palais] Garnier.

De Keersmaeker: That’s the reality. It is a luxury. Where we very much conflicted with the economical mechanics of visual arts. Museums have a very hard time investing in work. They know they can buy an object because they can speculate on it; but this [Work/Travail/Arbeid] to make it happen again you have to. . . And back to the people talking [during the performance]—the space you come in, it’s a hybrid space: it’s not the black box, it’s not totally the white cube either. It’s not really a marketplace, a place where you go and people are dancing in the street or on [at] the market. But it’s something in between. So the codes are baffled. And you realize sometimes that people were trying to find their place in it. In a museum you don’t scream and you don’t speak loudly. And definitely not in a theater: if someone in front of you speaks loudly. But in the museum you can speak à voix bas. On a marketplace you can do whatever you want, well not entirely. But it’s very much also a social event about sharing concentration and celebration in the same time and same space, and about how you organize that and to which codes you refer. At WIELS you saw parents coming with kids and nearly putting out their picnic. The problem became when people left objects and they fixed their objects, like bags, in the middle. So I find it quite normal that people are a little bit confused or don’t know how to behave. Because it’s an unusual space to be in. And it’s also very simple: if someone stands in front of me I can’t see. But music you always hear. And I know that the nature of this music. . .

Weigert: In your work there’s playfulness and joy but also moments of violence. In Work/Travail/Arbeid there were confrontations, moments when people were in the way, or dancers came up against the walls of the gallery. Would you talk about these moments in terms of violence?

De Keersmaeker: No, the movement is based on a vortex, so that is like water. In Chinese philosophy water has enormous strength but it adapts itself, it’s fluid. So when you have an obstruction and water comes, it moves around it. The choreography is written very precisely with a geometrical pattern that is under it. But if there was an object standing—whether it was a wall or whether it was a person—people worked around it.

Weigert: Or it was pushed.

De Keersmaeker: Or it was pushed. It’s like fire, or between fire and water: it has the liquidity of water, but it also has the heat of fire. Weigert: One last question. Work/Travail/Arbeid is an excavation of Vortex Temporum in that it lays out the layers of the piece in time. Now when you return to Vortex Temporum is it completely different?

De Keersmaeker: It is different. I like them both—it’s black and white, it’s a different universe. It’s a different theatricality; it’s a different way of perceiving. Both are about how you perceive different layers.

Weigert: Thanks for taking all this time.

De Keersmaeker: You are very welcome.

Cover Image: Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Work/Travail/Arbeid, performed by Rosas at Centre Pompidou, Paris, February 26–March 6, 2016 (choreography © Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker) video source:

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