The Dark Red Research Project: A New Dance in a Different Museum

Published on 16.12.2019, 15:45

After the international success of Work/Travail/Arbeid, which relocated dance into different major museums in the Global North, including Volksbühne, Berlin; Mudam, Luxembourg City; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate Modern, London; Centre Pompidou, Paris; and WIELS, Brussels (where it premiered), Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker launched another in situ project, this time at M HKA in collaboration with deSingel. According to the artist’s public introduction at the beginning of each half-day session during its four days at M HKA, The Dark Red Research Project aims to develop a new kind of choreographic language suitable for the museum space.

At first glance, this mysteriously color-coded project seems to promise a trajectory similar to that of Work/Travail/Arbeid, which asked what it might mean for choreography to perform as an exhibition. But careful consideration surfaces key differences. First, if the aim was simply to enable the public to see the company’s work process, surely a series of open days could be organized at the Rosas/P.A.R.T.S. studios. Why must this work in progress unfold specifically in a museum—a space known for its collecting and archiving functions? One hint lies in the words of the choreographer herself. She stressed that what was seen at M HKA should not be understood as a spectacle in the vein of Work/Travail/Arbeid but rather as an unfolding of a slow work process in an art setting which usually demands a particular protocol of how to look and see. Not only is The Dark Red Research Project an opportunity for the non-theatre-going public to see for themselves how she and her company work together toward the new projects ahead of them that are specifically to take place in museum settings. [1] This includes Rosas’s contribution to the Constantin Brancusi exhibition at BOZAR as part of the EUROPALIA ROMANIA Festival in Brussels (on view through January 11, 2020). The project itself can also be understood as a way to rethink how we look and see in the museum space.

Museum visitors who entered unbriefed in the middle of a Dark Red Research Project session might have been uncertain about what kind of project it is—a performance of a rehearsal or a rehearsal of a performance? But as one stayed a while, it became apparent that neither was the case. There was structure, certainly, but things unfolded organically without a prewritten script. Unlike Work/Travail/Arbeid and De Keersmaeker’s earlier projects, The Dark Red Research Project came with an open-endedness: “I’m not sure what it’s going to bring us. This is just the start of a one-year project,” said the choreographer in each introduction.

Also, whereas Work/Travail/Arbeid is informed by the logic of repetition—it plays as a loop, intended to be on view continuously during a museum’s open hours—each session of The Dark Red Research Project is a singular event and takes a different point of departure. While the sessions on the first two days differently targeted the preparation of each dancer’s individual part, the sessions on the last two days focused more on particular aspects of the choreographic process, which, through trial and error, were intended to lead to what the company will put on as their upcoming museum-based projects.

During the warming-up process on the first two days, imaginative minds might have perceived the different curves and lines the bodies made as a playful correspondence with either their painterly and sculptural or photographic and digital counterparts throughout the museum. Working these preliminary lines and circles is comparable to a painter’s preparatory study. The sessions on the last two days witnessed the company operating in a horizontal working relationship to transpose Salvatore Sciarrino’s Opera per Flauto into a choreography, seeking to embody Sciarrino’s composition, which itself seeks to disembody sound as we know it. This coalesced beautifully with a translational process that took Brancusi’s sculptures—highly acclaimed for their pursuit of equilibrium between abstraction and embodiment, horizontal inertia and vertical trajectory—as another point of departure.

As Western art history tells us, primitivism is the alter ego of modernist aesthetics and subjectivity. As with Paul Gaugin, André Derain, and Pablo Picasso, a significant phase of Brancusi’s artistic career was informed by primitivism. The Kiss (1907), The Prayer (1907), and The Wisdom of the Earth (1910) are testimony to this. Echoing Brancusi’s high-modernist aesthetics, and despite its usual label as “contemporary” music, Sciarrino’s Opera per Flauto exudes the same tension between form and matter, mind and body. The sagacious decision to bring Brancusi and Sciarrino together at M HKA reflects De Keersmaeker’s expanse—the depth of her interdisciplinary knowledge of the arts. Her endearing comment regarding Chryssi Dimitriou, one of the flutists from Ictus who accompanied the choreographic process, is surprisingly revealing in retrospect: “She looks like an angel, but she plays like a devil.” The jest De Keersmaeker shared with visitors at M HKA encapsulated the often-overlooked paradox of sublimation that sustains both Sciarrino’s and Brancusi’s works.

This rigorously played out in both Dimitriou’s rendition of Sciarrino’s music and Rosas’s choreographic transposition of it. Dimitriou confirmed in an on-site interview that in any attempt to dematerialize the sound produced, one must contend with the fact that “Sciarrino’s music is also very sensual and physical, and the production of its sound is corporeally very intense.” This nuanced paradox of physicality in the pursuit of abstraction resonates well with Rosas’s translation of the sonic register into an intriguing “choreography of breaths.” This is where the company, through trial and error, applies its familiar choreographic repertoire of the figure eight and the pentagrammic prism to rhythmically alternate collapses and elevations of the upper body to embody the rhythmic command of Sciarrino’s ghostly sonority.

This astonishing embrace of what I understand to be a slippage of “primitivism” in the pursuit of abstraction is, I would argue, an epiphanic gesture, signaling perhaps Rosas’s potential departure, either temporarily or perennially, from its immaculate formalist sanctuary. Whether this is just an in situ experiment for experiment’s sake or a significant development indicating a new phase in De Keersmaeker’s choreographic practice remains to be seen in her upcoming projects, including the one unfolding at BOZAR. Although primitivism as such does not come through strongly and visibly in Rosas’s choreographic translation of Brancusi’s oeuvre, De Keersmaeker’s choreography of the sculptural is still subtly fueled by the tension between bodily materiality and the pursuit of ethereality that underlies Brancusi’s aesthetics of defiance of gravity, which for De Keersmaeker is key to the metaphysics of dance. Viewers with interests in both art history and dance will discover at Rosas’s ongoing contribution to BOZAR’s Brancusi exhibition which creative phase of the sculptor’s practice De Keersmaeker takes as her point of departure in this curious interdisciplinary transposition treating dance almost as a sculptural object.

And then there is the matter of time. Although Work/Travail/Arbeid’s compelling “counterpoint” technique allowed museumgoers to look in a different way, the fact that the spectator could access the work over repeated viewings fed into the logic of a retrospective, which is a dominant mode of exhibiting the performing arts in a museum.[2] But The Dark Red Research Project has an open-ended structure and positions itself as a “work process” rather than a retrospective. As a retrospective, Work/Travail/Arbeid situated itself in a teleological scheme, treating time as progressive—falling into the usual categories of past, present, and future, which succeed and condition one another along an imaginary timeline: first Vortex Temporum, then Work/Travail/Arbeid.[3] The Dark Red Research Project, on the contrary, takes the museum away from its usual collecting and archiving functions where ideologies and structures of power operate. It not only redefines the function of the museum as we know it, but stretches this historically and politically loaded space to accommodate the political activity of becoming.

Playing with the art historical way of seeing that underpins the museum space, The Dark Red Research Project’s adoption of work process as its mode of address invites the viewer to freely associate what unfolds at M HKA with De Keersmaeker’s recurrent preoccupations: choreography as defiance of gravity; the nexus between breathing, bodily gestures, and social meaning; and geometric forms such as the spiral, the circle, the pentagram, and the dodecahedron. The Dark Red Research Project’s “choreography” escapes being subjected to the art historical apparatus that “construct[s] its conditions of intelligibility under a specific theoretical determination,” especially that informed by the imaginary timeline. Thus, the viewer can understand it in a nondeterministic way.[4] Within this mode of viewer engagement, The Dark Red Research Project asks what the form of a more critical museum is; indeed, it offers a new “dance” in a different “museum.”

Now, consider the political potentiality of choreography. As the performing arts are often almost automatically associated with spectacle and entertainment, some critics understandably explain the unabated popularity of staging “dance exhibitions” in the gallery space as the museum’s motive to attract more visitors and reap greater revenues. Coming full circle, ending where we began, De Keersmaeker’s insistence that The Dark Red Research Project should not be understood as spectacle characterizes her astute troubling of the boundary between performing arts and performance art. While the former pivots on the re-performable choreographic score’s dictation of how the skilled body should move, the latter seeks to make a singular event happen via the deskilled body of a contingent public.[5] Insisting on the political potentiality of the art of choreography, De Keersmaeker reminded her audience in the letter accompanying The Dark Red Research Project of the political function of the term “choreography,” thanks to its etymological derivation: choir + writing. In the context of antiquity, the choir is not only the spectator of a tragedy but “a commentator, someone who judged from an objective, third-person standpoint on the troubles of the protagonists. The choir thus has a deeply critical function: it manages to see through the illusions of the great heroes.”[6]

Upholding the relevance of choreography in contemporary social life, De Keersmaeker taps the political potential of visual art’s “performance,” which thrives on its participatory strategy. The last session witnessed the choreographer’s impressive mediation of the tension between the skilled and the deskilled body—which informs the boundary between performing arts and performance—by connecting every body present at M HKA, regardless of skill level, in a collective dance of breathing. Automatically associable with the choreography of breathing as a dialogue with Sciarrino’s “shadow sound,” this concluding session took breathing as a commonality shared between the viewers-turned-performers and the dancers, including De Keersmaeker herself. Two long rows of bodies were formed opposite each other. Two flanking hands were then lifted up and down simultaneously with collective inhalation and exhalation, visually forming a human sculpture of a gigantic moving centipede. This culminating moment was where the possibility of politics was transposed from the usual spectacle to a new mode of shared commonality: breathing as dancing. This is where De Keersmaeker’s choreography gets most political, as it literally goes in search of “how to organize a multitude.”[7]

Rathsaran Sireekan

[1] Photography and filming were prohibited, reversing the recent trend among museums to drop restrictions on photography. A staff member from deSingel patrolled the space and stopped any attempt to photograph or film the proceedings.

[2] That is, instead of maintaining a single frontal viewing position, the vortex in Work/Travail/Arbeid allows the spectator to view the work from different perspectives. As De Keersmaeker puts it, “You are not in a fixed relationship between the spectator and the performer.” “Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker: Work/Travail/Arbeid,” Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2017, On the matter of repeat viewings see Claire Bishop, “Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker,” Artforum, Summer 2015, On the logic of the retrospective see Eylül Fidan Akıncı, ‘Dance Exhibition as Retrospective, as Pilgrimage: A Review of Work/Travail/Arbeid,” The Advocate, May 7, 2017, On presenting the performing arts in museums see Claire Bishop, “Black Box, White Cube, Gray Zone: Dance Exhibitions and Audience Attention,” TDR: The Drama Review 62, no. 2 (2018): 26.

[3] Okwui Enwezor, “Foreword,” in Hanne Darboven. Enlightenment—Time Histories. A Retrospective (Munich: Stiftung Haus der Kunst München and Prestel Verlag, 2015), 13.

[4] Cristian Nae, “Retrospective Exhibitions and Identity Politics: The Capitalization of Criticality in Curatorial Accounts of Eastern European Art after 1989,” paper presented at the colloquium “Art History on the Disciplinary Map in East-Central Europe,” organized by the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, at Moravian Gallery, Brno, Czech Republic, November 18–19, 2010, pp. 3–4.

[5] Bishop, “Black Box, White Cube, Gray Zone,” 24–25.

[6] Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, “A Letter to Dance,” May 4, 2019,,

[7] De Keersmaeker, “A Letter to Dance.”