Dance and visual art have a rich history of mutual influence and symbiotic exhibition. Dancers as visual art subjects have spanned the globe and the millennia—from Dehli to Dakar to Degas. “Dance-in-the-Museum,” as a concept and sub-genre, is probably not as old, but it’s older than you may think. From Isadora Duncan’s performances at the end of the 19th century in Charles Hallé’s New Gallery in London, to the historic avant-garde beginning with Merce Cunningham’s performances of “Museum Event No. 1” in Vienna in 1964, continuing with work of the Judson Dance Theater and into the present, choreographers have found artistic fodder in the constraints and liberations of the white cube.
“Dance-in-the-Museum”—alongside, but distinct from, performance art—has flourished in the new millennium, drawing both devotees and detractors. Some, like critic Elaine Stuart, have noted the risk of being seen as “gimmicky,” and others, like the Trisha Brown Dance Company’s Diane Madden, worry that dance is seen as trying to associate itself with “higher” art. Still, most have happily walked into this new space. MoMA, the Guggenheim, Tate Modern, the Pompidou, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Walker Arts Center, and even the Museum of Natural History, and many more have had major dance installations over the recent decades.
The relationship is often a two-way street; the museum is not simply the site for a site-specific piece. Rather, the museum is more and more doing what it does: collecting, which, in the case of dance, is a curatorial curiosity comprising, case by case, an alchemy of performance rights, documentation, and instructions sets. MoMA Associate Curator of Media and Performance Ana Janevski explained the Museum’s efforts to add dance performance to its collection: “What we are trying here—considering that we are a museum and have a collection—is to focus on historical artists. We’ve acquired recently Simone Forti’s dance constructions, [works of] Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, artists with whom we’ve worked [and] thought: they had to be part of this narrative, the art historical narrative of the museum.”
The choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s entry into the narrative in 2011 fused dance and art in a four-limbed embrace that blurred the lines between them. She performed Violin Phase, one of the four parts of Fase, her 1982 choreography to the Steve Reich compositions, in MoMA’s atrium. The piece is a solo and is danced in sand so that the dancer’s steps produce a geometric image, created—and then erased—in real time. The art museum thus exhibited a dance that created a piece of visual art, one almost as fleeting and ephemeral as the dance that created it.
De Keersmaeker’s newest museum piece is Work/Travail/Arbeid. The work steps beyond what artist David Levine calls the presentational strategy—a conventional piece with a beginning, middle, and end performed in a gallery at scheduled times—to adopt instead the durational strategy: performance as an exhibition to be entered and exited at the will of the visitor.
Work is a translation of Vortex Temporum (2013), a piece De Keersmaeker created in and against the music of late French composer Gérard Grisey’s piece of the same name. The choreography, originally intended for the proscenium stage (performed as such at BAM last October), was deconstructed and adapted into a living exhibit at its first home, the WIELS Contemporary Art Center in Brussels, where it was performed in nine-hour cycles in 2015. It was installed at the Pompidou and then the Tate after its run at WIELS and at MoMA last month.
Viewers of Work negotiate the space while the dancers from De Keersmaeker’s company, Rosas, each paired with a live musician, perform around them. De Keersmaeker creates an intimate, nuanced interrelation of the two arts forms, embodying the space in and between complex musical structures, gallery spatial constructs, and an ever-moving audience. The dancers open and close their bodies in spirals adjusting the temporal conditions: slow and controlled, and then snapping back like a bungee cord. The musicians orbit and cut across the space. Even the grand piano on wheels glides along. There is a quality of mathematical precision in the doing and un-doing, circuits and retrogrades. After each cycle, dancers draw another circle on a central point of the floor rendering a geometric vortex, again fusing the impermanent with the permanent.
The themes of translation, reinterpretation, and adaptation are central to the inherently social nature of the bodies in space and time. Work reveals the social layers of dance by extracting the choreography from its theatrical setting and placing it in public space—breaking the boundaries to invite members of society in. Dance within the museum space constantly responds to the architectural contexts, the proximity of the visual art, and forces of the interacting audience; the dancers are continually assessing, adapting, and moving, constituting the titular Work (a series of translations itself). De Keersmaeker posits dance as labor—both physical exertion and spatial-social recalibration.
I caught up with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker at MoMA during Work’s run. Leaving the white cube of the MoMA Atrium where Work was unfolding, she and I made our way to one of MoMA’s black box theaters. The emptiness of this conventional performing arts space—simultaneously serving as the green room for the Rosas dancers and musicians when not performing—served as an ironic counter-poise to Work’s decidedly unconventional spatial context. Sitting down in the first row of the theater, we discussed the adaptation of Work, the social nature of dance, and the implications of the museum context.
Gillian Jakab (Rail): It’s fascinating to follow the many lives and re-interpretations of Work/Travail/Arbeid, having seen the work in its original iteration at the WIELS Contemporary Art Center in Brussels in 2015. I’ve since read about its adaptions at the Pompidou and the Tate. How does the piece translate to each setting? How does the architectural space and audience particular to MoMA shape the work?
Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker: Each of those places has specific architectural features. WIELS is not exactly the white cube of the museum; it is an old industrial building that has been transformed. But together with Ann Veronica Janssens, we dismantled the fake walls so that the sunlight would come in—the daylight. In fact, there were two spaces, and you had one entrance which sort of opened the perspective of those two spaces, [and] invited [us] to put two vortexes and to alternate the physical presence: we would start in the first space and then go to the second space. During the day, of course, the sun turned around the building and shaped—sculptured—the perception of the space and of the dance happening in that space in a quite radical way. It was, I think, in WIELS, the most beautiful place to work with the light.
Pompidou was another story because the space was much larger and it was a square. So it invited us to only put one vortex. But the size of the geometrical floor plan on which we worked was actually too small, so we enlarged the pattern. The other thing was that is was on a ground level with windows that that gazed out on the outside, so there was a lot of visual information of the city life going on and passages of people who walked by. In WIELS there were also pillars standing, so people more easily felt safe to go in the middle of the space, inside the dance.
Rail: Instead of sitting up against and anchoring to the perimeter.
De Keersmaeker: Yes. And the Turbine Hall [at Tate Modern] is still another story, because first of all it’s huge—physically huge—you can look at it from the top, which you couldn’t in WIELS nor the Pompidou. So the drawings of the patterns, the ones that were done in chalk, were very visible as they evolved through the dancing. We did three vortexes, one after the other. And during the cycle, one-hour cycles, dancers would start in the more nearby vortex and for then for the second movement travel to the second, on to the third, and it would be also doubling, as it was in WIELS, but in a different way.
Here [at MoMA], what is very specific is you actually have a rectangle on top of a square: the ground floor of the atrium is a square, but on top, the architecture is not the same square height as it is down below. There is also of course an important audience visitors flow that goes through the gallery, so the decision was quite quickly made to not try to go with two vortexes: to make one vortex and to not try to enlarge or shrink it. It mainly was a question of if we would rotate the direction of the vortex, which, for example, we did in the Pompidou. In the Pompidou, constantly, at every hour, the basic direction would change. We didn’t do it here because in certain directions you would get in nearly a too-proscenium situation. I think one of the main things that is different here is the presence not only visually but also sound-wise.
Rail: Dance, and performance more broadly, has been popular in museum gallery settings since the mid-20th century with post-modern dance, and has precedent as far back as the 19th century. You last performed at MoMA in 2011 with Violin Phase. However, Work/Travail/Arbeid differs from your other work in museums in its exploration of performance as exhibition rather than as a piece with a conventional duration and set time. What was your first interest in working within a museum space and what has changed as you’ve considered the question of dance as an exhibition?
De Keersmaeker: Well I started working in 1982 and over the past thirty-five years I’ve mainly performed in a black box situation, in many theaters all over the world—large theaters, small theaters—but the frontality, the basic codes of time and space were always the same. The very first time I performed in a museum situation, was indeed in the [MoMA] Atrium: my solo Violin Phase, which was done in a square of sand here in the middle of the space. The geometrical pattern that organizes the spatial movement based on a circle was emerging through drawing with the feet in the sand. That idea actually came from the film that Thierry de Mey made about Violin Phase where I was dancing in the forest. After that, during the opening of the Tanks [in the Tate], we did the whole Phase, not only the solo, but also the other parts at regular times, so still the time and space were fixed; people could not invade. And then it was while I was working on Vortex Temporum in Brussels, and we are located very close to WIELS, that an invitation came from Elena Filipovic to think of performance as an exhibition and to do an exhibition as a performance. While I was working on the piece, that invitation came, and then we elaborated the idea of doing a nine-week show in the space of WIELS.
Rail: The idea is certainly an interesting one, and it questions the codes of spectatorship. I remember when I was at WIELS there were some children running around, and their mortified parents tried to discreetly rein them in. In general, audience members shifted around the space to get out of the way of the dancers and musicians. I saw a little bit of this at MoMA too, but it felt more formal perhaps.
In your conversation on March 29 at MoMA with Associate Director Kathy Halbreich you discussed dance as an inherently social and communal practice. I know you were talking about this in terms of the creation of the dance with your dancers, but then it becomes social in the space of the audience as well. Can you tell me a bit more about that idea?
De Keersmaeker: There are different aspects. One is the very work or creation process. A choreographer writes with the dancers. In certain periods, you can work alone, prepare work and so forth, but the choreography—when people are involved—you don’t work alone on your computer; you are in the practice. So it’s a socially very intense system. The work is done, and then once the piece is made, it has to be embodied and performed live. In visual arts, the work is done before; there is a product made; there is an object made that can be sold, that stays there. But here it has to be embodied. Once choreography is written, l’écriture est faite; it has to be each time rewritten in the immediacy of a given space and the immediate contact with changing audiences. So the part of the creative, and the intensity of the labor, is much higher. Dancers are not objects; it’s much less speculative. When museums invest in bringing dance into the museum, they are basically paying for labor and for an experience.
Dancing is—besides the fact that you could define choreography in many different ways: as moving architecture; as the ultimate way of defying gravity—its basic tool is always the human body, and that human body is always the most contemporary because, you know, it is in time and space, here and now. The human body has all in its facilities, its mechanical aspect, its sensuous aspect, intellectual and emotional, but also its social body. It’s always about, not just the space within the body, but the space between the bodies: how the space between performers changes and also the territory which is made in this triangular relationship, if you don’t have solos. The territory between the spectator and the performer, and how that space breathes, changes, transforms itself, condenses itself, expands itself—that is a physical space, but also a social space. And I think it is heightened in a museum situation much more so than in a black box theater, because you are there and they’re there [pointing to our place in the seats and then to the empty stage]. They’re spatially organized in fixity as a collective experience, where in a museum that space is completely liquid; everybody stays as long as he wants; comes as close as he wants, as far.
The other thing is that with the gaze, you are not only watching the dance, but you are watching the other people watch the dance, and you have the daylight; we are not anymore in the secret of the night, which is typical of the black box theater: the lights go out. Since the Wagnerian era, we hide to celebrate, there is degree of objectivity, there is access to detail, because you can come very close. You can manifest what energetically happens with the body when it is in such a high degree of expenditure, you know, of moving, what is happening and how that changes a dancer.
Rail: Yes, it is so much about the—
De Keersmaeker: —social body. I do think it’s really a crucial difference, the relationship between the one who dances and the one who watches, and that they can see each other—and that they can see what they watch and also how they watch. In the black box, it’s much more anonyme; it’s much more a mass that gives its final approval by applauding or not applauding.
Rail: In the exhibition, the sustained presence of the audience is a form of approval, in a way. Though there seem to be other factors. I was noticing a bit yesterday, a very high-energy moment with many of the musicians and dancers, the audience was all crowding in. At the end of this cycle—maybe there was silence for a bit and one dancer occupied the space, and one musician—the audience seemed to reflect the energy level of what was happening; there were fewer people drawn to the space.
Can you tell me a bit about the ways you hope audience members interact and engage with the performance, and your observations of the work playing out?
De Keersmaeker: Well, you see that there is really a very constant interaction between the architecture: how the architecture invites a certain flow, and then the amount of people in there, the more people in the same space, the more the mass is heavy, the more gravity plays, the more there is density, the more force you need to get movement in that.
What I found is that you really reach other audiences. Especially in those huge places like Pompidou, the Tate Modern, or here [MoMA], you have a lot of tourists.
Rail: It’s not just a dance audience.
De Keersmaeker: Not just dance, and it’s not just visual arts either. Of course, you can raise questions about that: the degree of concentration, and in a way, what is the degree of consumption? But, still, it creates audience flow which I think is exceptional, and people get to see, are exposed to, art forms that they [might not have]. And let’s be clear also about ticket prices: museums generally tend to be a more democratic situation than theaters.
It’s not only the amount of people that come to watch, but also the amount of hours they spend there. And some people just, not camp there, but nearly. They would come; they would come back. It is an incredible luxury. With an artwork, this question is not raised, this kind of eternity-filling that you go away and you come back and its still there. People are dancing for you, being present, and sharing that presence. Some people in the audience have said: this is exceptional; I’ve always wanted to see Rosas and now I can see it if I want six or seven hours a day. I can stay there. I can come close and I can go far, at a price that is much more democratic.
Rail: Definitely. It changes the access. I was observing the dancer’s costuming: it’s very subdued and neutral, but there are very kind of personal details with small bits of color or particular marks. I was looking at the dancer with the “Bernie” shirt and it made me smile. He was wearing it yesterday, so it seems like a continued choice, not just a one-day outfit.
De Keersmaeker: Well, we loosened up the rules when we came here. Usually everything is white, and is fixed. And while we were rehearsing here, I had the feeling that it would be good to allow more individualization of the costumes. And to find a delicate balance between readability, you know because there is so much visual information, so the main reason to work with those white costumes was readability. In the black box, we work with black costumes: it’s tons-sur-tons, black on black. Here in the white cube, it’s white on white. But then, again, we share the same body: the ones who watch and the ones who dance. Human posture—and basic human movement like walking—we share. So, I had the feeling that a certain sense of individuality would be appropriate. So I loosened up the rules. And that’s how Bernie came in. There are variations on the theme.
Rail: The audience members can see themselves in the dancers, in a way. Work/Travail/Arbeid combines live music and dance performance within the context of a visual arts exhibition. I know you work intimately with the relationship between music and dance. What opportunities or challenges do interdisciplinary performances open up?
De Keersmaeker: I think the presence of music, and the presence of sound, is a crucial fact. Museums naturally are silent. You’re not supposed to speak and there’s not supposed to be music, in contrast to the theater. In those huge institutions, where a lot of people are coming in, there is of course natural talk, but there is no articulated [sound]. Sound is much more invasive than visual information—music immediately fills all the spaces.
I do think that the choice of this particular piece, the Vortex Temporum—the “spiral of time,” where the fact that there is this very idea of a spiral, a circle, a vortex—is sort of excluding the idea of a fixed frontality. Grisey works with the idea of condensing time and expanding time, that made it for me particularly worthwhile to try to this challenge: what if you put this music and this dance in the museum? Because it was proper to the very material of that choreography, of that music, to break those borders which are so specifically different between the black box and the white cube: no frontality; circular movement; fluid movement; fluid space; expanding time; contracting time.