Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s “Choreographic Object” at Brancusi: Sublimation of Form, Bozar, Brussels, 2019
Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker has a special relationship with Constantin Brancusi. She has often mentioned the Romanian sculptor’s inspiration and influence on her practice as a choreographer. Recently at the Collège de France, she asked, “Do you know the person who spoke the following words: ‘My whole life, all I’ve ever looked for is the essence of flight. Flying, what joy!’?”1 For De Keersmaeker, Brancusi exemplifies the ability to master solid matter and turn it into ideal form—a form that reflects a process that “seek[s] to negate the mass of sculpture in order to convey the physical sense of flight.”2 A form that flies, which she regards as the most beautiful. Indeed, Brancusi’s philosophy of the sculptural mirrors her long-held view of choreography as an act of defying gravity.
Enmeshed with this is the idea of abstraction as reduction toward a kind of cleansing. Or as De Keersmaeker puts it, getting rid of the unnecessary in order to get to the truth. This is also well reflected in Brancusi’s aphorism “Simplicity is not an end in art, but one arrives at simplicity in spite of oneself, in approaching the real sense of things.”3 Indeed, if choreography for De Keersmaeker is an art of embodiment, it is also fundamentally about abstraction, or, to invoke the term the choreographer herself often uses to refer to her art, “embodied abstraction.”
Reigning over her contribution to the Brancusi exhibition at Bozar—the artist’s first retrospective in almost twenty-five years, on view through January 11, 2020—are these closely intertwined notions of choreography as gravity defiance and choreography as an embodiment of abstraction. Taking place in the room dedicated to the renowned series of muses—oval heads with abstracted facial features, a motif to which the sculptor would repeatedly return over a period of fifteen years, from 1910 to 1926—different female members of Rosas’s cast take turns at hourly intervals embodying a “choreographic object” that resonates with Brancusi’s shapes.4 The “dance” starts off with the solo dancer standing, making a vertical axis, confronting the muses. While most of the works on view are vertical in the high-pedestaled vitrine, some are horizontal, as if afloat. Bathed in a circular pool of light against the backdrop of white walls, the solo dancer, now seated, then starts the process of reclining, her body ever so slowly and subtly tilting to the right, with the right hand sustaining the weight of the body on the floor. As the recumbent angle is ever so gradually reduced, the straight right arm must increasingly bend until, to sustain her weight at that angle, two hands must be on the floor.
If you don’t look hard and long enough, it is difficult to discern any movement at all. After some twenty almost impossibly and obviously physically strenuous minutes, the dancer is totally flattened out in a straight line, hovering, only few centimeters between her body and the floor. It is an epiphany to witness a “dancing” body’s attempt to defy gravity in this way. And although the whole choreography—a product of De Keersmaeker’s ongoing, yearlong Dark Red Research Project—makes reference to works from different periods of the émigré artist’s practice,5 it immediately brings to mind the iconic Sleeping Muse (2010), whose backstory involves the coming together of gravity defiance and abstraction that also underpins De Keersmaeker’s new choreography at Bozar. Sleeping Muse was Brancusi’s attempt to arrive at the perfect portrait of the French Baroness Renée-Irana Frachon. Dissatisfied with realist approaches, he not only eliminated the “unnecessary” details of her face, but also decided to recline the neckless and earless oval-shaped head, turning the axis of verticality usually crucial to the tradition of portraiture into its opposite: the horizontal. The abstraction underpinning this rendition allowed the artist to get closer, he felt, to the essence of femininity, transcending individual personality. Sleeping Muse evidences Brancusi’s ability to give the sculptural mass its exceptional ethereality, its afloat-ness from the pedestal it rests upon.
Fundamental to De Keersmaeker’s work at Bozar is this equilibrium between matter and form, vertical and horizontal, particularity (of a person) and universality (of women in general). Rosas dancer Sue-Yeon Youn’s interpretation—in which she “flies” and embodies the sculptural imaginary of the bird series at the end of the performance’s gravity-defying ritual—stresses her understanding of both Brancusi’s and De Keersmaeker’s artistic desires to “negate the mass of sculpture in order to convey the physical sense of flight,” to invoke curator Doïna Lemmy’s apt description.6 The particularities of the countenances of Rosas’s international cast, consisting of Asian, African, and European descents, is sublimated, revealing nothing, like a Sphinx with its riddles. Unlike other Rosas works that migrated from the black box into the white cube and involve the dancers’ interactions with the audience members in their immediate vicinity, eye contact with the audience at the Bozar show is purposefully avoided.
The Choreographic Object and “Make it new!”
Beyond these dichotomies, however, also lie the interesting dimensions of time and movement imbued in Brancusi’s sculpture, which De Keersmaeker’s translational project not only aptly takes on, but foregrounds. While the shiny surface of Brancusi’s work—certainly not pioneered by the likes of Anish Kapoor or Jeff Koons—reflects the ever-changing environment around it, which makes it durational, something like a video projection on the skin of the sculpture, time and movement, however subtle and slow, are likewise key to De Keersmaeker’s project at Bozar. Keen observers will perceive the micro tremors in the almost static recumbent arm and torso of the Rosas solo dancer. The ever so slight rise and fall of the abdomen, for instance, emphasizes the choreography’s extraction and reflection of the time element in its source material: Brancusi’s sculptures. An oxymoron in a sense, this “choreographic object” challenges our usual complacent way of looking in the museum, which usually goes only surface deep. Sustained by the unresolved tension between dynamism and stillness, it forces us to look very carefully to discern shifts from one position to another, in our urge to reassure ourselves that this is not a sculpture per se. In this way, the curious ontology of De Keersmaeker’s innovative choreographic object intervenes into the self-evident notions of both “dance” and “sculpture.” Like bitter pills that are good for patients, it makes us uncomfortable because it knocks us out of our usual museum habits. It slows down our way of looking. Like a meditation with eyes open, it makes us see afresh.
By taking up kinetic art and trompe l’oeil, De Keersmaeker is here joining such avant-garde forerunners as Marcel Duchamp and Tristan Tzara. Both artists frequently, as the Centre Pompidou archival video at the Bozar exhibition reveals, visited the Romanian artist’s legendary salon and studio. The kinetic and durational elements in De Keersmaeker’s translation of a sculptural source are also relatable to the twentieth-century Modernist literary movement, given how the miniscule tremors that constantly invigorate De Keersmaeker’s almost static choreographic object are highly reminiscent of Imagist poetics. This mode sought to restore language’s ability to command attention under the adverse circumstances of modernity, in which repetitions through mass production had killed the immediacy of language: Make it new! (Ezra Pound, the father of Imagism, also frequented Brancusi’s studio!) The imagist poem “The Pot of Flowers” (1923) by William Carlos Williams, for instance, succeeds in recapturing our capacity for attention to a commonplace object like a pot of flowers through the same technique that Brancusi and De Keersmaeker use—that is, injecting dynamism and a sense of duration into something seemingly static, mundane. Duchamp’s fascinating black-and-white silent film Anémic Cinéma (1925), also on view at Bozar, succinctly encapsulates the spirit of this choreographic object where movement and time enliven still objecthood. Indeed, the exhibition’s historically rich contextualizing elements make abundantly clear De Keersmaeker’s robust ties to Modernism. Her choreographic object in this context can be understood in parallel not only with Imagism but also with Duchamp’s renowned notion of objets trouvés, which sought to breathe a novel kind of life into commercially mass-produced things.
The Bozar presentation also, interestingly, foregrounds photography as a key element in Brancusi’s practice. Upon arrival, visitors confront an apparitional loop of two video snippets featuring Brancusi’s face in action, such that he appears to preside over the show. And the lens-based focus continues: each section of the exhibition is accompanied by the sculptor’s own photographs of the works on view. Well known for exerting great care and control over the circulating photographic images of his works, Brancusi, according to Man Ray, “refuses to let anyone photograph his works, because . . . the photograph was beautiful, but it did not represent [his] work.”7 Brancusi wished to control how his objects were looked at. One photograph shows a pool of light bathing the sculpture, creating through reflections a sort of aura radiating from it. Another shows a reflection of the surrounding environment incorporated into the shiny surface. At his Impasse Ronsin studio in Paris, Brancusi also “assembles works in groups, including in the game of putting together combinations that he then proceeds to photograph, thereby creating his total work of art.”8 These are testimony to how photography physically contributed to the sculptor’s works; for him, it determined the contours and limits of the object being engaged.
If De Keersmaeker’s mandate in this show was for her choreographic object to resonate with Brancusi’s shapes, the central role of photography in the sculptor’s practice opens up ways of rethinking spectatorship in De Keersmaeker’s oeuvre—how we viewers should look at and experience her work. If photography for Brancusi determined the limits of the physicality of the object, we cannot then help wondering, where does De Keersmaeker’s choreographic object end?
Today, the smartphone camera is inextricable from our way of seeing. When looking at dance exhibitions like this one, we take pictures or film it for our personal archive—a way of defining who we are from what we have seen and done. By injecting time and dynamism into the static objecthood of museum exhibits, De Keersmaeker not only foregrounds the sophisticated use of visual technologies in Brancusi’s practice, but also engages in a modernist mandate to use art, in this case choreography, to engage viewers to look harder, longer, and with greater care (even if we do so through our phone cameras).9 Just as Brancusi embraced both old and new technologies, so, I argue, does De Keersmaeker, for whom the contour of the choreographic object extends to include the spectators and their smartphones. Like Brancusi’s shiny sculptures, De Keersmaeker’s choreographic object embraces externalities and accumulates them onto itself, making the work of art ever changing, ever expanding, fluid.
1. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker lecture at Collège de France, Paris, 2019, viewable at https://www.rosas.be/en/news/733-video-anne-teresa-de-keersmaeker-s-lecture-at-the-college-de-france.
2. Doïna Lemmy, “Brancusi: Sublimation of Form,” in Brancusi: Sublimation of Form (Brussels: Europalia Romania Arts Festival, 2019), 12.
3. “Art” supplement, This Quarter, no. 1 (1925): 235, quoted in Lemmy, “Brancusi: Sublimation of Form,” 11.
4. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, “Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker/Rosas,” exhibition wall text in Brancusi: Sublimation of Form, Bozar, Brussels, 2019.
5. For me, this includes Sleep (1908) and The Prayer (1907), where preoccupations about gravity are distinctly visible; and the bird series (from 1910 onward) as seen through, for instance, Sue-Yeon Youn’s interpretation discussed above.
6. Lemmy, “Brancusi: Sublimation of Form,” 12.
7. Man Ray, Autoportrait [Self-Portrait], trans. Anne Guérin (Paris: R. Laffont, 1964), 189, quoted in Doïna Lemmy, “The Art of Sculpting His Own,” in Brancusi: Sublimation of Form, 15.
8. Man Ray, Autoportrait, 12.
9. Here I follow Claire Bishop in her scholarship on dance exhibitions that do not stigmatize the technological mediation of smartphone cameras. Claire Bishop, “Black Box, White Cube, Gray Zone: Dance Exhibitions and Audience Attention,” Drama Review 62, no. 2 (2018): 22–42.