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Issue 19

Work It

What are the challenges of producing a dance piece in the form of an exhibition?

BY Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker AND Elena Filipovic in Profiles | 23 APR 15

Basic Circles & Magic Squares, preparatory drawing for Work/Travail/Arbeid, by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, 2014 (courtesy: Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker & WIELS, Brussels)

ELENA FILIPOVIC  The artistic director of WIELS, Dirk Snauwaert, and I invited Anne Teresa to conceive a dance piece that would follow the protocol of an exhibition. The proposal was that it would last more than two months and ‘perform’ like an exhibition rather than a theatre piece. There is a mathematical rigour to Anne Teresa’s choreographies; a classical formalism and a way of working with music and dance that made this sort of project a particularly interesting challenge. The idea was not to have her abandon her working process, but to take everything that is central to her methodology and work ethic and ask her to imagine what would happen if they were governed by a different set of conditions. It was a gamble, we weren’t sure she would accept.

ANNE TERESA DE KEERSMAEKER  When the invitation came it was, among other things, an opportunity to share my working process with an audience, something not possible in the theatre. When choreographing, I regularly walk around the dancers and musicians. I construct pieces by observing every angle of their movements, something the audience in the theatre can’t do. Here I wanted to give the public access to my way of seeing and choreographing.

Rehearsal for Work/Travail/Arbeid March, 2015, WIELS, Brussels (photograph: © Anne Van Aerschot)

EF  The title that Anne Teresa chose, Work/Travail/Arbeid, is metaphorical but also very literal: here you see actual work. Human labour is costly and the more hours and the longer the show is up, the higher the cost. This is the harsh reality of ‘live’ arts and why projects of this scope in art institutions are rare compared to those in opera houses or theatres where conventions and economies are different. But it was vital to this project that it be both the duration of an exhibition as well as occupy the multiple spaces of an exhibition, while using professional dancers and musicians paid according to their normal daily fees. This meant that an art institution like ours needed to involve a number of co-production partners and sponsors – ranging from an opera house to a bank – with all kinds of smaller collaborating institutions in between. On an institutional level, the title Work/Travail/Arbeid is instructive for us, too. Things such as ticketing, to allow people to come back to see the exhibition over its nine weeks, had to be considered and adjusted. The catalogue too. Often catalogues come too early or too late. Either accom­panying a project but not documenting it, or documenting it but not accompanying it. Here we made a catalogue in two parts: a box set with two volumes ready now, explaining the project and tracing its foundations, and two volumes with newly com­missioned essays and photographic documentation that will be published after the exhibition and sent to those who bought the first part.

ATDK  Choreography for me is about organizing time and movement in space. I wanted the setting to be extremely simple. The spaces are empty: no additional walls or added scenography. There are only chalk lines on the floor. I was also informed by the architecture. The upper floor of WIELS, where the piece is on view, is comprised of two connected spaces. That creates a kind of a mirroring effect, which has inspired the choreography – a rethinking and reworking of the piece from its stage version, Vortex Temporum (2013). The space is not exactly a white cube, but still, it is far from a black box. Actually, it is much closer to a rehearsal space. The costumes are also affected by this change. I often like to work tone-on-tone in terms of costume colours and backdrops. In the theatre version of Vortex Temporum it was, naturally, black on black. This time it will be white on white. I like the effect when dancers melt or fade into their environment and the natural light in the space will help. Keeping the light makes a lot of sense since I am used to working on pieces in rehearsal spaces in daylight. I have always found it a bit strange to construct a piece in a certain light and then see it in another light in the theatre. Right now it’s a very beautiful day in Brussels. The presence of the light constantly changes as the sun moves around the building. Besides, by chance, a solar eclipse will occur on the day of the opening!

EF  The point about the architecture of the building and minimal sceno­graphy is an important one. As a choreographer, Anne Teresa is well known for her pared-down approach to scenography, costumes and lighting and this remains very much the case here. She did not want us to construct any additional walls. Rather she had us strip the space to something close to its nude or natural state. We often try to protect artworks from exposure to natural light but here Anne Teresa wanted the shifting light conditions to be part of the piece.

Rehearsal for Work/Travail/Arbeid March, 2015, WIELS, Brussels (photograph: © Anne Van Aerschot)

ATDK  There is another major intervention: we actually put in a special floor because of the length of the show. It is almost impossible to do this kind of dancing for nine weeks on concrete. Other facilities that we are used to we don’t have here – a dressing room, showers, a recreation space – so we will have to change our habits. But we’re dancers, we are flexible.

EF  I think what is crucial are the expectations that come with each kind of setting. The theatre has some defined protocols: the public enters, they take an allocated seat, the lights come down, the external world is cut off and attention is meant to face forward, to grasp something that starts and ends at a particular time. We could have approximated that situation – which sometimes happens when dance is presented in a museum – but for us it was never a question of a mere transposition from the theatre space to a museum space. Instead, to ask of a piece that it follow an exhibition protocol means that people can come whenever and for as long as they want during opening hours. They can move around the space and even walk into the midst of the ‘action’, since there is no stage for the performers or segregated place for the audience. Importantly also, the dancers and musicians might perform when no one is there to watch them, which is something that would never happen in the theatre but always happens in an exhibition: artworks are hung or placed and then they’re ‘on’ – they don’t get taken down just because there is no public at a certain moment.

ATDK  This process is part of the work and the performance. The choreography itself is strictly written, but when it comes to interaction with the audience we start from zero. We have thought about it and though we can anticipate a range of situations there aren’t any prepared responses. It is vital to remember we are dealing with a social body, an emotional body, an intellectual body – an individual body too. The dancers and musicians are not objects, of course. Unlike with artworks, there is no alarm system if people start to touch.
As told to Astrid Kaminski

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker is a choreographer and founder of the dance company Rosas based in Brussels. Her exhibition Work/Travail/Arbeid at WIELS in Brussels runs until 17 May 2015.

Elena Filipovic is director and chief curator of Kunsthalle Basel. She was senior curator at WIELS in Brussels from 2009–14, during which time she initiated Work/Travail/Arbeid with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker