Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 13, 2016
Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker: Work/Travail/Arbeid
Centre Pompidou, Paris, February 26–March 6, 2016
Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. Work/Travail/Arbeid (2016). Paris, Centre Pompidou. Photo: Anne Van Aerschot.

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, in the spring of 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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

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.”

Laura Weigert
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, Rutgers University

(An enhanced version of this review, featuring multimedia content and an interview with the choreographer, will appear as a Scalar project.)