Womanhood in Rosas danst Rosas

Published on 21.06.2017, 12:14

Rosas danst Rosas is, in many ways, one of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's signature pieces. In 1983, the work finalised the choreographic vocabulary she had first outlined a year earlier in her debut Fase marking the beginning of a long choreographic journey. Both choreographies are characterised by the same minimalistic, abstract movements transforming through countless iterations, and a great deal of structural rigidity. In contrast, both Fase and Rosas danst Rosas put prominent emphasis on the bodily exhaustion of the dancers – the piece is suffused with an intense physicality, with all its inherent tensions, offering a counterweight against the unrelenting, almost mathematical logic of the composition. The space is divided according to geometric patterns; a characteristic that has remained paramount to Rosas's creations ever since.

The vocabularies of Fase and Rosas danst Rosas, of course, exert some strong common features.  Rosas danst Rosas, however, distinguishes itself by the introduction of everyday movements such as lying down, sitting, running, turning, and so on. The underlying dramaturgic structure likewise follows different moments of the day like sleeping (in the first movement) or working (in the second). Leaning on an elbow, sinking into a chair, crossing legs and so on, are only a few of the movements which, on the one hand, are easily recognisable by the audience, and, on the other, are precisely divested of their quotidian character because of the alienating pattern of repetition miring them down. Furthermore, Rosas danst Rosas infuses this vocabulary with a distinctly feminine touch: certain aspects of the choreography are now grafted onto the female body itself. The potent image of women put forward in the choreography, of course, has led many commentators to categorise it as a standard-bearer for a feminism within the postmodern dance milieu from its very inception. Yet, when asked about this possible feminist connotation, De Keersmaeker herself has always resolutely denied the associative link. “It was never our intention” she stipulates ‘to make grand statements or to publish manifestoes,”. She refers to the title of the piece: “We danced ourselves, using our own experiences. I found it difficult to accept such a recuperation of our own experience once the critics got their hands on the piece.” Within Rosas danst Rosas itself, generalisations of such a sort are now generally avoided. Contrary to initial impression, however, a focus on the uniformity of piece’s movements does not restrict the space in which individual dancers might go about improvising and perusing its possibilities. Not only during the solos of the third movement, this repetitive character remains intrinsically tied to the dance itself. “In a composition like Rosas danst Rosas, the distinction between what is the same and what is different is crucial,” De Keersmaeker says. Inevitably, when a movement sees continual repetition, the audience's attention naturally shifts to what sets the dancers apart and to the individuality of their separate performances. Here, the costumes of the four dancers have the same effect: almost literally a uniform, it accentuates the internal differences between every dancer within the piece as a whole.  

The generalising character of a feminist label was not the only reason the choreographer didn't want Rosas danst Rosas labelled in this way. “In the early eighties, I believe feminism had a strongly partisan character, hard-nosed even. The only way to make yourself count as a woman was by standing your ground as if you were a man, engaging in a certain toughness and callousness, even. It seemed as if typical female characteristics were not considered equal to masculine ones, but rather ignored. That is why I didn't want Rosas danst Rosas to be ascribed with a feminist undertone, precisely because of the minimalist aspects of the performance. In those days, this minimalism was easily associated with an austere, cold detachment.” Such an association of ‘minimalism’ with a more hard-line feminism, finds its roots in a dance history preceding the advent of Rosas danst Rosas. It is self-evidently clear that choreographies can never be reduced to their mere societal contents – but then again Rosas’s pieces, like others, do not exist in a social vacuum, detached from the context in which they were written. About eighty years before the creation of Rosas danst Rosas, around the turn of the twentieth century, a set of women took charge of the dance milieu after a long intermittent period in which male choreographers moulded their ballerinas in accordance with prevailing Victorian standards. In ensemble with the Suffragettes, who championed women's voting rights, choreographers Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller took to the stage, above all, to dance works wholly of their own making. In costumes that allowed them to move freely, they prioritised the visibility of their own bodies, claiming their personal freedom to publicise women as potentially sensual beings. The virginal, almost immaterial sylph receded as the beacon of modern dance. Even later, the independent mythical heroines of Martha Graham rebelled against a similar form of suppression. In second wave feminisms in the 1960s and 1970s, however, a different vision became important. Showing a pronounced need to articulate femininity more explicitly, rather than postulate it sans phrase, contemporary ideas of femininity, these new authors claimed, were at risk of reducing women to mere sex objects rather than liberating them. Choreographers like Yvonne Rainer and Lucinda Childs, for example, reworked the heritage of Merce Cunningham, replacing Duncan’s voluptuous body and Graham's tormented figure with a yearning for stronger conceptual content. In their version of postmodern dance, gender discussions were no longer primordial. As such, they brought about the advent of a more abstract formalism; a way of thinking, cerebral and formal, that was now also claimed by women.

De Keersmaeker, in turn, has never denied the influence of 'minimal dance' theorists such as Lucinda Childs, Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown. As such, however, she has continued to emphasise that such an influence had not yet manifested itself during the creative process of Rosas danst Rosas. To elaborate her point, De Keersmaeker here refers   to one of her greatest creative examples: Pina Bausch. As a choreographer, Bausch did not compose her pieces within the bounds of the newly established American tradition, but rather, chose to continue further on the tracks laid out by German Expressionism before her. “As far as I’m concerned,” De Keersmaeker claims “the tension between masculinity and femininity is the common thread that runs through her work.” The fact that De Keersmaeker showed herself rather reluctant, at the time, to explicitly associate her formalist affiliations with reigning feminist currents, should therefore come as no surprise.  On several key points, for example, her performance also deviates from the detached, conceptual forms of dance trying to obfuscate the physical intensity and pleasure which comes with the performative act. On the contrary: as the performance progresses, the audience not only witnesses the increasing exhaustion, but also the pleasure that stems from it. This could explain the impact of this work when it was first staged, and the success it continues to have. One reason Rosas danst Rosas marks a turning point in the history of dance, amongst others, is the way the choreographer chose to orchestrate the presence of the dancers on a stage. One could claim that De Keersmaeker managed to combine a penchant for formalism and choreographic concepts with a dance vocabulary with a clearly feminine bent. That is also how she describes the performance: “On the one hand, there is the attachment to minimalism, the conceptual, at times distanced. On the other hand, one also senses a rather pronounced feminine physicality not 'exhibitionist', but claiming its right to existence. Rosas danst Rosas celebrates femininity without ignoring it by making it more masculine, whilst also not simply exploiting it.”

As noted above, the feminist angle is only one of the many through which Rosas danst Rosas may be interpreted. As author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes today in her widely acclaimed essay “We Should All Be Feminists”, however, feminism should now occupy itself with the question of how women can be respected in their femininity without having to apologise for it – Adichie wants to be able to enjoy high heels and lipstick as well as politics and history. When reading such recent interventions, it quickly becomes clear that Rosas danst Rosas has lost none of its urgency.  A project such as Re:Rosas undoubtedly thanks it success to the large number of people who still connect to a choreography enacting the whole game of seduction in a straightforward manner and yet simultaneously distancing itself from it. By carrying out seductive movements in a framework of mathematical repetition, they ultimately become almost ironically charged: the cliché is defeated. Thirty-four years after its premiere, Rosas danst Rosas is still offering a new vision on womanhood.

Floor Keersmaekers, June 2017

This text is partly indebted to Roger Copeland's article “Why Women Dominate Modern Dance”. (The New York Times, 18 April 1982).