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,
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
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