Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker
Museum of Modern Art
New York, New York
March 29, 2017
by Gay Morris
copyright© 2017 by Gay Morris
In creating “Work/ Travail/Arbeid” Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker asked an important question: “Can choreography be performed in the form of an exhibition?” Her answer is on view through Sunday in the Museum of Modern Art’s Atrium. “Work/Travail/Arbeid” is derived from a one-hour piece called “Vortex Temporum” (score of the same title, composed by Gérard Grisey) that was created to be performed in a theater. De Keersmaeker has transformed it into a nine-hour cycle, with the choreography changing each hour over five days. The work is danced by De Keersmaeker’s company, Rosas, in collaboration with the contemporary musical ensemble, Ictus. This is not the first time “Work/Travail/Arbeid” has been seen. It has also been performed in Brussels (where De Keersmaeker is based), at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and at the Tate Modern in London. In each venue De Keersmaeker adapted the piece to the particular space, which differed markedly in each instance. She has continued this process at MoMA.
Rosas company dancers in Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s "Work/Travail/Arbeid" at The Museum of Modern Art. Photograph © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.
There is little doubt that dancing in a museum is different from dancing in a theater. The most obvious difference is that the audience doesn’t remain in one place; it is restlessly on the move. This transience is aided at MoMA by the fact that there is no seating except on the floor of the performance space. The Atrium is also a passageway to various galleries, meaning people constantly walk through it. This coming and going creates a very different viewing experience from what occurs in a theater. For one thing, it makes the audience more directly part of the performance. The lighting also contributes to the sense of participation because, as opposed to a theater, the audience is not in the dark, separated from the performers. De Keersmaeker takes this viewing difference seriously and accommodates it by not only extending the duration of her dance, but by eliminating a frontal perspective, and by abjuring a beginning, middle and end. The duration and flexible perspective allow people to see the dance from many vantage points, and at different times, even different days. The dance also does not bow to a customary theatrical structure, but simply starts, goes on for a while, stops, then sometime later starts again. On Wednesday, when I viewed the piece throughout the day, the audience, apparently did not know quite how to react to these halts, and would tentatively applaud. But the clapping felt odd, especially since the dancers didn’t acknowledge it as they would in the theater.
“Work/Travail/Arbeid” (the title in English, French, and Flemish) is set for seven dancers and six musicians, plus a conductor. The choreography is based on spirals and changes of weight, reflecting the vortex of the score’s title. Before beginning a new section, the dancers drew elegant, circular patterns on the floor, which according to program notes, connects the movement and the score. The movement is derived from one basic phrase of about a dozen moves that are then extrapolated in what seem like endless variations. The dancers are each linked to a specific instrument (flute, violin, piano, clarinet, viola, and cello), and the dance structure is governed by the music’s structure, which is reinforced by the dancers’ continual interaction with the musicians. It should be added that Grisey’s music is not danceable in the usual sense of the word. It is difficult, intellectually rigorous, and unforgiving. So structure in this case is not always immediately apparent; it takes time to absorb and sort out.
From a visual standpoint the dance is often quite beautiful, especially looking down on it from several floors above the Atrium, where the patterns of movement in combination with the drawn patterns on the floor become clearer. The Rosas dancers are focused and in complete command of the choreography, but they are also able to make instant, impromptu decisions on where to move should an obstacle unexpectedly appear (always likely when the audience is mobile). The choreography can be deceptive since it frequently looks informal and task oriented, but is in fact complex and extremely refined. At times a single dancer might move in slow, spiraling gestures that gradually expand outward into space, while at others the whole group could be twisting, leaping, and running in ways that sometimes looked ready for a collision. But the dancers would hurtle by each other at the last moment, and weave around spectators and musicians as if it had been planned all along. In addition to this kind of virtuosity, each of the Rosas dancers is a strong individual artist with personal approaches to enunciating the movement. This gives the dance another important level of texture and nuance.
So the question remains: Does De Keersmaeker’s rethinking of “Work/Travail, Arbeid” transform it into an exhibition? First one might ask what the difference is between a performance and an exhibition. According to Webster’s dictionary a concise definition of an exhibition is “a display of items of interest or a skill” where a performance is “the execution of an action.” On a rudimentary level a dance may be an object, in the sense that it exists at a certain time and place. De Keersmaeker’s dance also involves a skill. But the purpose of the dance is no more to demonstrate a skill than the purpose of neurosurgery is to demonstrate surgical skill. Rather, as in surgery, skill is a tool to accomplish something else, here to explore the relationship of the deep structures of music and movement. So the dance is more than an object, more than a skill. And it is certainly an action, meaning that unlike a painting or sculpture it cannot be wholly contained within a frame. It can be partially captured in rehearsals, repetitions, images and even words, but in each instance of its doing, it renews itself. Consequently, dance overflows and exceeds the boundaries of an exhibition, which, I suspect, is one reason museums are pursuing dance with such energy these days.
And what does the museum do for dance? Setting politics and economics aside, which is beyond the scope of this review, De Keersmaeker makes it clear that the museum offers the choreographer a chance to mold dance to a new kind of space, audience, and viewing experience. Since the 1960s it has become common for dance to take place at any number of sites, from streets and parks to monuments and warehouses. Just as does any venue outside the proscenium stage, the museum provides another place to dance.
Rosas company dancers drawing floor patterns in chalk before the start of a section in Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s "Work/Travail/Arbeid" at The Museum of Modern Art. Photograph © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.
Rosas company dancers executing one of the basic spiraling movements in Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s "Work/Travail/Arbeid" at The Museum of Modern Art. Photograph © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.