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

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

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker: Work/Travail/Arbeid
Centre Pompidou, Paris, February 26–March 6, 2016
Laura Weigert

What might dance achieve in a museum is the guiding question of choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s exhibition Work/Travail/Arbeid at the Centre Pompidou. Embedded within that broad question are several, more specific, strands: How might dance change perceptions of time and space? What defines dance as a medium? What remains after the exhibition? Such issues are endemic to a long-standing, sophisticated conversation about the possibilities of contemporary dance in museums (see, for instance, “Dance in the Museum,” special issue of Dance Research Journal 46, no. 3 [December 2014]). As a medievalist who has extensively explored an archive of performances from the distant past, I came to this conversation from a somewhat oblique angle. My experience of the work during multiple visits to the Pompidou, and my subsequent discussion with the choreographer in an interview that took place on June 3, 2016, in her Brussels studio, prompted me to reflect on the precedents and potential of Work/Travail/Arbeid’s conjunction of performance, medium, and memory in Paris this year.

Work/Travail/Arbeid is both a new, site-specific work and a revival of an existing choreography. Created to function as a museum exhibition, the work reimagines De Keersmaeker’s Vortex Temporum (2013), titled after its musical accompaniment, a 1996 composition by Gérard Grisey. Work/Travail/Arbeid’s first venue was the contemporary art center WIELS in Brussels in 2015; the exhibition also traveled to the Tate Modern, London, and will open at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on March 29, 2017. In both the theater version and the museum iteration, seven dancers from De Keersmaeker’s company Rosas joined six musicians of the Ictus Ensemble and their musical director, Georges-Elie Octors. The museum exhibition comprised nine segments, each one lasting about an hour and including a different combination of dancers and musicians. The dancers’ movements created variations on a dance “sentence” incorporating the same twenty-three gestures, each grounded in the body’s rotation around the spine. The piece’s visual aesthetic conveyed the circular rotation of the vortex evoked in the work’s original title; the musical aesthetic mirrored the choreographic movement’s centripetal force.

The concept of work—understood in various senses—is central to why and how De Keersmaeker adapted Vortex Temporum for the museum. In our conversation, she reiterated a point she has made before: “Dancers are not objects. We are not creating objects; we are creating experience.” To exhibit dance is to reattribute value to the artist’s labor, since the museum pays each time her choreographed piece is performed. Moreover, Work/Travail/Arbeid makes one intimately aware of the dancers’ bodies, skill, and endurance. Their perspiration glistened and left droplets on the gallery floor; the opening hours of the exhibition provided a quantifiable testimony to their physical exertion, their “work.” But De Keersmaeker’s statement also asks us to consider the experience Work/Travail/Arbeid created at the Centre Pompidou.

Unlike the exhibition at WIELS, which featured two choreographic vortices situated in different gallery rooms, Work/Travail/Arbeid at the Pompidou pulled visitors into a single, centripetal vortex. The musicians and dancers cycle away from and then back to a shifting center: each segment set in motion a dynamic force composed of the circular movements of the dancers and musicians and their trajectories around the gallery. This underlying structure emerged in multiple variations: the different combinations of dancers and musicians; but also the waxing and waning of the distance between performers, the speed of their gestures, and the intervals between movements and sounds, as dancers and musicians circulated around and among visitors. Work/Travail/Arbeid vacillates between, on one hand, a state of tranquility elicited by the volume of the music and slow fluidity of the dancers and, on the other, a tension conveyed through the force of the dancers and musicians, the tautness of the invisible line linking them, and the anticipation of their gradual progress toward a crescendo of movement and sound.

What stood out in particular about the experience of Work/Travail/Arbeid at Pompidou was the exhibition’s relationship to the city of Paris. Whereas the height of the gallery windows at WIELS let in only light, the three glass walls of the first floor South Gallery at the Centre Pompidou look out onto the crowded square around the museum. Visitors perceived the dancers and musicians in conjunction with the landmarks (Stravinsky Fountain, Saint-Merri, Café Beaubourg) along with the human activity taking place at this busy thoroughfare and meeting place in the city center. In my discussion with her, De Keersmaeker stressed that in contrast to WIELS, “the basic movement that organizes peoples’ time and space was constantly present inside the room and outside the room; you read the choreography against that backdrop.” The situation of the exhibition in this urban environment made us aware in distinctive ways of changes in how we perceive time and space.


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.

Read the full interview here. 

Work/Travail/Arbeid extended the reflection on time already present in both Grisey’s composition and in De Keersmaeker’s staged version of Vortex Temporum. Its choreography excavated the layers of the hour-long music and dance composition, separating it into nine units performed sequentially on each of the exhibition’s ten days. The repetition of sounds and movements introduced an awareness of cyclical time that coalesced with the linear time of the opening hours and exhibition run. As daytime turns to darkness, we observed the day’s passing through the three gallery walls. Grisey’s composition incorporates what he considered the times of humans, whales, and insects, as it recognized time’s attrition. Work/Travail/Arbeid’s duration and rhythm, shifting between slow and fast, contrasted with the rhythm of the workday in the city and the fluctuation of movement around the museum. When I returned to my office nearby, I remained attuned to the dancers, who continued their work at the same time. The exhibition encouraged an experience of these multiple temporalities within and outside the museum.

Similarly, Work/Travail/Arbeid focused attention on the fluidity and variety of the exhibition’s spatial contours and relations. Between segments, dancers detached a length of fluorescent string from the gallery wall and traced in chalk a series of concentric circles along the floor. These provided an initial trajectory around which and within the dancers and musicians moved. But this demarcation only temporarily separated visitors from performers. Whereas initially visitors stayed apart from the dancers, standing and sitting around the perimeter of a central area, by the exhibition’s closing, they inhabited the performance, placing themselves in the center and throughout the gallery, which simultaneously incorporated the spectatorial codes of the museum, the theater, and the marketplace. Within this hybrid venue, the spatial relationship between performing bodies and visitors changed constantly; visitors could perceive the performers closely or at a distance and from varying positions. Furthermore, the contours of the performance expanded beyond the walls of the gallery. Onlookers outside the gallery became part of its audience; the performance incorporated their bodies and the movement of passersby.

De Keersmaeker: 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.

Read the full interview here.
The participatory dynamic of Work/Travail/Arbeid involved us in these temporal and spatial shifts. Visitors chose the angle and position from which to watch the performers; they decided when to watch, and for how long. For De Keersmaeker, this freedom invited visitors to be part of “creating choreography.” Performers modified their trajectory according to the position of visitors. At times the force of their movement, which the choreographer compared to fire and water, displaced the museumgoer.

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.

Read the full interview here.​
Moreover, as she described it to me, “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.”

Occupying these shifting perspectival positions allows us to grasp what we share with the dancers but also what keeps them separate. The choreography incorporates walking, running, turning, and spinning. The familiarity of these actions intensified through their juxtaposition with the passage of people in and outside of the museum. Some visitors responded overtly to the sounds and movements: children found the gestures of the dance vocabulary instinctively, with the music prompting them to accompany its sounds with their bodies, while adults, more discrete in their demonstration, imitated the dancers with just an arm or foot movement. The identification and empathy with the dancers’ movements that the exhibition in Pompidou promoted led, in turn, to an appreciation of the technical skill, precision, physical control, strength, and endurance required of their craft.

The everyday quality of the dancers’ movements and the craftsmanship with which they were performed is at the heart of De Keersmaeker’s conception of the medium. “Dance as a medium can go from no craftsmanship at all to high virtuoso craftsmanship, from someone who can do twenty-five “tours fouettés” and someone who does basically weight shifting,” said De Keersmaeker. “And for me it was important to honor that craftsmanship. I think I’ve seen too much non-craftsmanship in museums, under the influence of the concept of ‘no dance,’ that limits extremely the complexity and the strength and the consistency of the compositional writing.” In such a definition, what is specific to dance is not movement per se but the range of movements that the medium encompasses and that Work/Travail/Arbeid exposed.

De Keersmaeker: 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. I think the 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 here and now, and to relate to the people there. 

Read the full interview here.

The interaction between dancers and musicians further expanded this range while circumscribing the limits of the two media. As in much of De Keersmaeker's choreography, Work/Travail/Arbeid enhanced the sensory experience of dance and of music, inviting visitors to see music and to hear dance. We hear feet touching the gallery floor; dancers embody the musical composition; musicians move as they play. The pairing of dancers with musicians heightened the similarity between the two media: bodies of dancers and musicians moved in tandem, came together and touched, then parted. At moments, dancers and musicians exchanged roles. Flautist Chryssi Dimitriou’s willowy sways embodied her instrument’s sound; Geert De Bièvre’s cello moved with him, becoming walking sound. A dancer took an instrument in hand, or, at one point, banged on the piano. These role reversals highlighted the limitations of practitioners of one medium to mediate in another, moments of conscious awkwardness and discord engulfed by the symbiotic relationship and structural harmony between movement and sound that the performance produced.

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 [the] 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. 

Read the full interview here.

Tangible remains of Work/Travail/Arbeid exist in the catalogue produced for the WIELS exhibition and in photographs and videos, including those accompanying this review. What might remain of the experience the dancers created at the Centre Pompidou? Perhaps this exhibition expanded the audience for contemporary dance. Perhaps it promoted appreciation of musical and choreographed structure and of difficult music and dance. Perhaps it recovered a lost form of attention. Perhaps it strengthened the community it brought together, without technology, through a shared experience of time and space. Perhaps what will remain is prosaic: the gratification of knowing that at one time and place you could watch professional dancers and musicians perform for as long as you wanted. As De Keersmaeker reminded me, “that’s a luxury you have to experience.”

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:

This page has paths:

This page references: