SURVIVAL THEATER OF THE EUROKIDS: The Flemish Performance Boom

  

Polverigi is a tiny hilltop town near the Italian seaport of Ancona that has hosted an international arts festival every summer for the last 10 years. Organized by Roberto Cimetta and Velia Papa, a charismatically laid-back theater director and a quietly hard-working former economist, Inteatro has been dubbed "the furious Spoleto" for its hospitality to trend-bucking experimental work. And it has acquired a reputation as "the festival producers' festival," since its obscure location dictates an audience composed almost exclusively of easygoing locals and heavy-duty talent scouts.

This July a squadron of 12 American presenters and a couple of journalists joined programmers from London, Zurich, Granada, and Amsterdam for a week of performances in Polverigi. Along with known quantities such as Britain's ethereal Penguin Cafe Orchestra and powerhouse New York dancers Ralph Lemon and Bebe Miller, there was a mediocre selection of Italian work exploring the festival's stated theme, which had to do with the theatricality of live music.

But the real story at Inteatro '87 turned out to be an explosion of energy from Flanders, represented by one dance piece (Wim Vandekeybus' What the Body Does Not Remember), one theater piece (Needcompany's theater piece Need to Know), and two music concerts (the sextet Maximalist! and solo pianist Wim Mehrtens). Severe, extreme, and idiosyncratic, these four performances served notice that the emerging generation of Flemish artists is the most exciting thing happening on the European performance scene today.

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker didn't appear in Polverigi this year, yet her name was on everyone's lips. When the Belgians were queried about the genesis of the Flemish invasion making such a strong impact in the festival, all roads seemed to lead to de Keersmaeker. She was frequently evoked in the tantalizing shoptalk of Hugo de Greef, the 34-year-old entrepreneur whose Brussels-based artist-management organization, Schaamte, handles nearly all the young Flemings, and romantically linked to Thierry de Mey, the leader of Maximalist!. In fact, her name became so ubiquitous that the Americans decided to make it the Pee Wee Herman "secret word" for the duration of the festival. 

De Keersmaeker made her first impact on American consciousness only last year, when her Rosas danst Rosas was the critical hit of the Brooklyn Academy's Next Wave Festival. But by then the 27-year-old dancer-choreographer had already been recognized as the spearhead of a cultural renaissance in Belgium. De Keersmaeker's peers include Jan Fabre the 28-year-old Antwerp-born painter-turned-director whose The Power of Theatrical Madness stopped at the Kitchen last year on its world tour, and 30-year-old Jan Lauwers, one of the founders of the theater troupe Epigonen ZLV, which has metamorphosed into Needcompany and will tour the United States next spring, arriving in New York for the International Festival of the Arts in June.

In turn, these artists have already spawned a second generation of rising stars. Roxane Huilmand and Michele Anne de Mey, original members of de Keersmaeker's ensemble Rosas, have become choreographers themselves, as has former Fabre associate Wim Vandekeybus. In the next two weeks, when de Mey, Vandekeybus, and the three-member Wisseltheater bring their performances to the Kitchen in a series called "The Face, the Body & the Beast," on the heels of de Keersmaeker's return to BAM with Elena's Aria, New Yorkers will get a chance to see for themselves what the Belgian boom is about.

Luckily, when I encountered the Flemish phalanx in Italy, I had already seen two performances that gave me key points of reference for the new Belgian dance-theater. The first was The Power of Theatrical Madness, which played for only two performances at the Kitchen in February 1986. Not particularly powerful or theatrical or mad, this four-and-a-half-hour extravaganza was primarily an endurance test for 14 young performers (and the audience as well). There was a lot of undressing and redressing, relentless brutality (a chorus line of dancers wrapping frogs in their shirts and stomping on them, naked men carrying women in their arms and unceremoniously dumping them on the floor), projections of details from classic paintings, bursts of Wagner and Strauss, and smashing of crockery. I most vividly recall the 15-to-20 minute stretch where six performers ran in place while repeatedly chanting a litany of avant-garde performances -- "Dionysus in '69, Performance Group! Peter Brook's King Lear! Living Theater, Paradise Now!"

That, and the dancer who performed a simple three-step ballet combination over and over again for an hour until her legs were ready to give out, was the crux of Fabre's work. It was meant to be irritating in its repetitiveness, and it was. It took as its subject the exhaustion of artistic tradition -- and it achieved that condition at the same time. The Power of Theatrical Madness had already been playing in festivals all over Europe since 1984 and came loaded with hype proclaiming Jan Fabre as "a Bob Wilson of the '80s," so it could only be disappointing to New Yorkers, and it was.

By contrast, Rosas danst Rosas arrived on BAM's doorstep practically unheralded. Yet at the end of a Next Wave Festival crammed with heavyweights of contemporary American dance -- Merce Cunningham, David Gordon, Mark Morris, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane, Eiko & Koma, Molissa Fenley -- it was the six performances in the Lepercq Space by de Keersmaeker's Rosas company that made the most impact.

Structured in five movements, Rosas danst Rosas began in silence with the four dancers lying on the floor in dim light. Rolling right and left, resting on elbows, running hands through hair, struggling to their feet, then falling back again -- all in precise unison. It took half an hour for all the dancers to get to their feet. The second section took place entirely on chairs. The third echoed the first in its horizontal movement, only with the dancers on their feet rather than on their backs. The climactic fourth movement suddenly got very hot -- uptempo beat, lots of hip-swinging and arm-raising in rigid formation, and eventually a circle really moving through space, ending suddenly with the dancers flung to four corners. Then a quiet coda in half-light, an afterimage of the four previous movements, dancers cooling down from a 90-minute workout, the end.

As the title -- literally "Rosas dance Rosas" -- suggests, the piece seemed like a choreographic autobiography, simultaneously showing the dance and how it was made (a postmodern trait if there ever was one). The stillness, the pauses, the repetition seemed not so much minimalist as pregnant, however, and it paid off. "De Keersmaeker's brand of repetition, unlike Pina Bausch's, doesn't suggest futility," Deborah Jowitt wrote in these pages. "Instead it offers insight intothe mysterious ambiguities of human behavior and the human capacity for consistency through change, for change through apparent stasis."

I didn't realize how fully I had taken in The Power of Theatrical Madness‘ and Rosas danst Rosas until I started recognizing traces of them in Wim Vandekeybus's What the Body Does Not Remember, which featured a handpicked cast of 10 young performers from four countries, affectionately dubbed Eurokids by Lois Keaton of ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) in London. I was a little taken aback by the piece's naked references to de Keersmaeker -- specifically the opening sequence of three boys rolling on the floor and the industrial-percussive score by Maximalist!. The Fabre influence was more expected, since Vandekeybus had performed in Theatrical Madness for two years on three continents. The piece was structured as a series of games played, a la Fabre, to exhaustion. In this kind of work, there's no such thing as suggestion, or in medias res; every section goes on too long. People try to walk across the stage balancing on chalk bricks. Everybody crosses the stage putting on a jacket or stealing someone else's, then the same thing happens with towels. A long section of three men frisking three recalcitrant women spread-eagled in space took on various shades of sinister -- the men were cops, they were mechanics fiddling with chassis in the body shop, fascistic choreographers enforcing perfect form, premiers danseurs trying to partner ballerinas who did not want to be partnered.

Just when I thought I couldn't stand the repetition anymore, the title kicked in, and the idea began to resonate of dancing as a metaphor for other examples of unnatural, voluntary actions that the body has to be taught -- getting dressed, ducking when someone tries to hit you, sleeping when you're not tired, safe sex.

Or making music. The spare, physical, stamina-testing quality of the movement in these works by Vandekeybus, Fabre, and de Keersmaeker asserted itself in the concerts by Flemish musicians presented at Polverigi. Wim Mehrtens, who supplied original music for The Power of Theatrical Madness and who has his own art-rock ensemble, played an hour of solo piano music that leapt unpredictably from strange Brian Eno-ish compositions full of pauses to torrentially percussive pieces reminiscent of Laura Nyro's passionate ballads to swelling Chopinesque melodies. Wispy stuff, though, compared to Maximalist!, who took to the stage looking like classic nerds in their steel-frame glasses, crewcuts, and shirts buttolled to the neck. Their instrumentation oddly straddles rock-ballad and chamber orchestra: prominent clarinet and cello, yet fueled by dual pianos and percussion pounding out steady, mechanistic, remarkably unfunky rhythms. Some pieces conjured Frank Zappa in his mock-Stravinsky mode (those somehow comical woodwinds), yet the finale was a demented gamelan piece for woodblocks and invented instruments that became a savage ritual as theatrical to watch as a performance of Steve Reich's Drumming.

After all these obsessive exercises in repetition and game-playing, it was refreshing finally to encounter evidence of an editing sensibility at work in Need to Know, even though the piece was clearly derivative. As the Kitchen's Bobbi Tsumagari said after the Needcompany performance, "Well, there were one or two moments that didn't remind me of the Wooster Group." Need to Know began with a video monitor showing a Granada Television program on "Terrorism and the State," in which a panel of American corporate executives discuss hypothetically what they would do if an employee were kidnapped abroad and held for ransom by terrorists. As if the program's grotesquely smug narrator and the patently embarrassed roundtable of dead-looking white geezers weren't risible enough, a red-haired actress sidled up to the monitor and launched into a monologue in Italian translating the TV program as if it were some kind of sex film.

A burst of fun music suddenly interrupted, three women leapt onstage for a wild swinging dance, and just as suddenly the music stopped as the nine performers lined up across the stage to declaim deconstructed fragments of Antony and Cleopatra. The actors repaired to a long table for a raucous party with many vodka toasts and smashed shot glasses. A pretty woman with long dark hair danced on the table as the others drunkenly la-la-la-la'd the "Habanera" from Carmen. More toasts, an exact repetition of the tabletop Carmen scene. The men tore off one woman's skirt and tossed it around. She stood on the table demanding it back, and they started spinning the table while she stayed in place facing front. The stage was giddy with movement and rock 'n' roll energy, dangerously fast and thrillingly free.

Then the deck cleared, and the tendency toward compression of time reversed. Things got stretched out, philosophical. Two men at mikes muttered about the death of Antony, and four bridesmaids wailed over Cleopatra. Devolving around the table, the performers discussed Shakespeare and Epicureanism, interpolating lines from the Granada film, a snatch of Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life" -- altogether an image of rehearsal process folded into performance like the coda to Rosas danst Rosas.

"The violence of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, the insolence of Jan Fabre, the impetuosity of the Epigonentheater, the cold savage musicality of Maximalist! are all examples of a young generation of creators each with his own personality, through whom passes the same current: physicalness" as clues to a possible language, Belgian critic Jean Marc Adolphe has written. And judging from its prevalence in Polverigi, it may be a crucial language for the future. Even as I struggled to learn it, I found myself pumping everyone within reach for insight into the Flemish phenomenon. What kind of social life produces such a concentrated repertoire of performing art that is so dark, so ferocious, so intent on pushing the body to extremes, so experiential as opposed to intellectual?

Informal conversations over beers and pasta painted a glum picture of Belgian culture. "This Flemish generation is coming from an old industrial society that is decadent, falling down," said Roberto Cimetti, who since 1980 had been inviting Belgian artists such as Jan Fabre, Epigonen, and theater troupe Radeis to Polverigi. "Brussels is a city of old people. Young people feel a huge gap between them and the old people. All the theaters are in old farms and old markets. Their darkness comes from the sense of working in ruins." Koen vanDaele, who works for the service organization Vlaams Theater Circuit (the Flemish equivalent to Theater Communications Group for America's not-for-profit theaters), pointed out that Flemish artists have no tradition of spoken theater. The best-known Belgian dramatists -- Maeterlinck, de Ghelderode -- wrote in French, while Flemish writers remain obscure. Even the high points in music and art took place centuries ago, leaving today's generation with no models of a living indigenous culture.

Belgium is known as "the crossroads of Europe" -- geographically bounded by France, Holland, and Germany, linguistically on the cusp of Romantic and Teutonic tongues -- which means it gets stepped on a lot. "Belgium is a land betwixt and between," Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker said wistfully. "We never mean anything." A critic friend who has spent time in Brussels indicated that one reason the Flemings are eager to distance themselves from their past, and a big factor in their intensely adversarial relationship with the French in Belgium, is the terrible Flemish reputation as collaborators in World War II. In any case, the alienation characteristic of contemporary Flemish culture goes beyond politics and abstraction -- it's palpable and personal. When I asked Jan Lauwers why he named his group Needcompany, he said simply, "Because I need company."

Everyone I spoke to agreed, however, that the renaissance in Flemish performance can be traced very specifically to the 1983 Kaaifestival in Brussels. Founded in 1977 by Hugo de Greef to promote new Flemish performing artists, the biennial festival also plays an important role in exposing Belgians to international work. (Though to hear them tell it, Flemish artists don't merely observe or witness or consume foreign work, they "confront" it.) In 1983, for instance, the Wooster Group brought Route 1 & 9 to the Kaaifestival and Spalding Gray did two of his monologues, powerfully infecting the likes of Lauwers and Fabre with the notion that radical juxtapositions and the most personal obsessions could be valuable material.

But the shot that launched the revolution was Rosas danst Rosas, in which de Keersmaeker showed that you could start literally from nothing -- with four women lying on the floor in the dark in silence -- and make something all your own. Watching this brooding masterpiece, in which four dancers with identical haircuts and Catholic-school uniforms explored the passion and pain of fighting rigid cultural conventions, the young Flemings in the audience went, "Yeah! That looks on the outside what we feel like inside." It was the same spontaneous combustion that occurred when the Ramones toured England in 1977 and gave birth to punk-rock.

Always fascinated by such specific cultural landmarks, I became     very curious about de Keersmaeker and arranged to meet her when the Belgian government flew her over to accept her Bessie Award in September. She showed up at City Center in a tux with her hair tied back in a ponytail; the next day at BAM, chainsmoking in Harvey Lichtenstein's office, her hair was down, and she wore a plain black dress. Either way she looked at once forbidding and fragile, grim and girlish. I asked how her English was, and she said it was okay but she wasn't very good at speaking in any language; her answers tended to be halting or brusque to the point of scorn. Yet when I asked why she called her company Rosas, she said, "They told me, 'You have to find a name with an O and an A in it, like Kodak and Coca-Cola.'"

Born 20 miles north of Brussels in Mechelen, de Keersmaeker (the name means candlemaker) studied ballet and flute as a child. After 12 years of being taught by nuns, she went to the Mudra school for dance training because it was the only game in town though didn't relate much to Bejart's aesthetic. In 1980 she made her first piece Asch, a duet with Jean Luc Breuer alternately subtitled "a theatre project in which the playing of a dancer and an actor cross one another" and "the bewilderment of a stubborn little girl and a big wounded pilot," at the Nieuwe Workshop in Brussels. The next year she studied at NYU and began creating a piece to Steve Reich's "Violin Phase" and "Come Out," with which she auditioned for a choreographer's showcase at Dance Theater Workshop. Aware that Eliot Feld, Laura Dean, and others had made the music something of a cliche, she finished the audition by marching up to the judges and saying, "Don't give me any shit about using Steve Reich." The complete Fase, four movements on the music of Steve Reich was performed in Brussels and Avignon by de Keersmaeker and Michele Anne De Mey, who formed the core of Rosas along with two other former Mudra students, Fumiyo Ikeda and Adriana Borriello. An Italian critic called them "the rebellious daughters of Bejart."

While Rosas danst Rosas was publicly hailed as a seminal work, de
Keersmaeker sees her 1984 Elena's Aria as a personal watershed. Instead of the pulsing rhythms of Reich and Maximalist!, the music features scraps of arias by Caruso; the performance also incorporates spoken texts from Tolstoy, Brecht, and Dostoyevsky as well as films of collapsing buildings. In this and subsequent work, de Keersmaeker leans toward spectacle yet eschews the pop sensibility current in much contemporary dance. Elena's Aria and the 1986 Bartok (a stringent translation of the Fourth String Quartet) exemplify, according to Dutch critic Robert Steijn, "the marriage of the 'drive' found in post-modern American dance with the neoexpressionism of Pina Bausch." Not extremely prolific, de Keersmaeker painstakingly attempts to recreate herself as an artist with each new work. She recently made her debut as a theatrical director with Heiner Muller's cryptic nine-page poem-text Despoiled Shore Medeamaterial Landscape With Argonauts and next year will embark on a piece based on Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea.

Despite their international acclaim, de Keersmaeker and her fellow Flemings aren't exactly the toast of Belgium. As in America, government funding for innovative work and access to the major performing facilities trickles down only after the opera companies and symphony orchestras have taken the lion's share. "Even if we have a great public success, we really are still on the margin," said de Keersmaeker, bemoaning the fact that if it weren't for Hugo de Greef, the scene wouldn't exist at all. Of course, de Greef is hardly chopped liver. This junior power broker, a stocky cherub who looks like a rock 'n' roll roadie, managed to round up production money from four festivals in three other countries for 24-year-old Wlm Vandekeybus' very first piece. But it's not in de Keersmaeker's nature to accentuate the positive. "My vision on the world and mankind is quite dark," she said. "There are so many problems. The one that scares me most is the complexity of the problems."

De Keersmaeker's choreographic vocabulary is not entirely dissimilar to the minimalism of the Judson dancers -- she acknowledges, for instance, the influence of Steve Paxton's marathon improvisations -- yet her work has the kind of content that the pioneers of postmodern dance avoided. If de Keersmaeker is the leading exponent of the Flemish avant-garde, the Belgians in turn represent the current generation of Eurokids for whom national distinctions (French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian) are less important than the shared feeling of being bystanders poised fretfully between the superpowers. As artists, they tend to ignore borders between the disciplines of theater and dance, and music, only distinguishing live art from mediated performance. Their work is fiercely body-based rather than verbal or intellectual. If the way they talk about the work seems overly earnest or elementary to us at a comfortable distance, the ferocity of their attack forces us at least to reexamine the relationship between obsessive repetition and postliterate performance to the state of the world.

Watching de Keersmaeker and Vandekeybus (and Britain's Michael Clark and Canada's La La La Human Steps), hearing about European companies such as Spain's La Fura dels Baus and Yugoslavia's Red Pilot who mount violent spectacles requiring military endurance from both performers and spectators, I find myself wondering: what larger drama are these children enacting? Not a romance with apocalypse, it seems to me, but an almost Spartan training for a war that seems inevitable. Except they know that they're not going to be fighting this war. They're gearing up now for the strength to survive it.

Village Voice, 1987