Dark Red—Fondation Beyeler

Published on 01.07.2021, 16:14

The foyer is teeming with people. With the first steps inside Fondation Beyeler, we are only just getting our bearings when stopped in our tracks by a monumental figure in thought. Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker (1903) is the first to welcome us with his contemplation. Then we notice another figure there to greet us. Abstract and gleaming, it’s Hans Arp’s Ptolemy III (1963). The crowd of people begins to circulate around the two philosophical figures. Intrigued by the playfulness that Ptolemy’s negative space creates, they head to the other side of the hall and position themselves beside it as if looking through a window. Some regard The Thinker from this angle, while others observe their companions through Ptolemy’s windows. Then something else arrives in the foyer to welcome the public—namely music, always inviting—prompting people to adjust their bearings one more time. It’s emanating from another room (just next door, perhaps?) and resonating in the space. Some head directly to the source, eager to discover the reason for it, while others indulge in the suspense of what’s to come and wander more slowly along. On this particular day, I am welcomed by a slowed-down version of Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5.”

This was one of several musical accompaniments selected for this version of Dark Red, choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and performed with the Rosas dancers. Dark Red—Fondation Beyeler was created specifically for the exhibition Rodin/Arp, curated by Raphaël Bouvier, which took the shape of a dialogue, bringing together the work of these two sculptors for the first time. Seeing it was like sitting in on a conversation that took place at the beginning of the twentieth century. One had a sense of tangibly experiencing a transitional moment, from one generation to the next, in the history of modern sculpture.

And then there was the presence of De Keersmaeker, the Rosas dancers, the choreography. Dark Red—Fondation Beyeler expanded the conversation from two artists to three as De Keersmaeker engaged in the discussion, using the sculptural work as inspiration for new choreography. It became a conversation between dance and sculpture, living art and sculpture.

In January 2021, Némo Flouret and I were invited to join the team behind Dark Red—Fondation Beyeler. Our task, in collaboration with De Keersmaeker, was to create a solo performance in the form of a tour through the exhibition, which would be presented alongside the choreography performed by the Rosas dancers. This text will not delve into a description of that part of Dark Red, but by way of a brief résumé: Némo would act as the tour guide, presenting the work to the public through explanatory speech, dance, song, and (something we might call) performative play. My job was to research the artworks on display and produce the textual content. Being a part of this process, and working with De Keersmaeker, meant that I was able to closely follow the creation of this iteration of Dark Red, not only in terms of Némo’s role, but also the wider picture—that which came to constitute the live installation by Rosas at Fondation Beyeler.

One of the things Némo and I focused on in our research was what Rodin and Arp might have talked about if they’d met and what sorts of questions they were both trying to answer. We arrived at a list of one hundred questions. This text was used at two moments in Dark Red—Fondation Beyeler: first by De Keersmaeker as she danced a duet with Cynthia Loemij, simultaneously reading the questions off papers and dropping them on the floor, one by one, and secondly in a duet between De Keersmaeker and Némo, where they stood face to face, firing the questions at each other in a mix of English and German.

But now, I want to pose the following question: If this list contained the questions we thought Rodin and Arp might be trying to answer, how would we answer them? How would De Keersmaeker answer them? In other words, how would one answer them from the perspective of choreography as opposed to sculpture? Interspersed in the text to come you will find some of these questions. My intent is to consider how they might move beyond the sculptors to Dark Red and make links between the three artists.

Dark Red—Fondation Beyeler took place in a spacious room full of light, both artificial and natural. A live installation that unfolded from the opening of the museum each day until closing, it was organized into cycles of two hours. A steady flow of solos, duos, trios, and larger groups took the space sequentially, which kept the room alive. There were silent moments, musical moments, times of rest, times of activity. The fluctuating presence of performance meant that whenever one entered the room, one would encounter something new. Nothing stayed as it was for long. One could simply pass through or stay for many hours, like those keen members of the public whom I noticed remaining for a whole day, then coming back for more the next. (Question 58: When will this be finished?) With a fine-tuned combination of solo dancing, unified group dancing, partnering, speaking, singing, costume changes, entrances, exits, and even a touch of ballroom dancing and live guitar playing, a calm yet dynamic quality was maintained all day long.

When I entered the room, the first thing I noticed were the people scattered around the walls. Some were sitting, clearly relaxed, while others stood, not so sure what to do with themselves or how long they would stay. I sat down, and while doing so, pondered how strange it is that even outside of a theater context, the habit of sitting to watch performance remains. If choreographers can be adaptable when it comes to places to present dance (and they must be in these times), maybe the public should be more adaptable with the way we watch.

Then, a lone shirtless dancer—Rafael Galdino—walked in from a sunlit doorway, took the space and gently began to move. His body passed through a continuous sequence of movements that, although silent, were melodic in their ebb and flow. Dramatic changes of position, tiny detailed alterations, and fast passages mixed with slow moments of curvaceousness made for a hypnotic solo that drew even the people at the room’s edges into the detail of his body.

Soon Galdino was joined by another, and from that point on the dancers came and went. The continuity of the performance was extenuated by the choreographic attention to ritual. Every time a performer appeared and disappeared, always from the same sunlit doorway, there was a ritual of taking clothes on and off—baring skin, covering skin. On a practical note, this helped to make the necessity of the performers managing their COVID face masks seem less painful, but beyond this, it drew my attention to their bodies. The body is, after all, essential subject matter for sculptors like Rodin.

Dance has the ability to be highly sculptural, and dancers have the ability to sculpt with their own bodies. In this choreography, it was as if the dancers were both the sculptors and the materials being sculpted. In other words, their bodies seemed to be made of marble, plaster, or liquid bronze as they moved themselves into a multitude of shapes. (Question 76: Can I turn this woman of stone into a woman of flesh?) All this with highly virtuosic corporeal awareness and concentrative performativity to match. I imagined that the room I sat in was full of invisible casts, ready to reproduce one of Rodin’s sculptures in bronze. It was as if the dancers were moving their way through this imaginary space—they became the bronze that was poured into a cast and emerged as one of the twenty-eight reproductions of Rodin’s Nijinsky (original 1912, cast 1959). Choreographically speaking, De Keersmaeker decided to create movement material by embodying the sculptures on display, further heightening the sculptural capacity of dance, but it wasn’t just a case of simple imitation. The way that the dancers moved from shape to shape was full of intricacy. The level of detail they managed to dance out of themselves was truly impressive—just as impressive as the work of the two sculptors.

While watching the performance of this choreography in the same space as the artworks it stemmed from, I was struck by how successful dance proved to be at blending the approaches of these different sculptors—Rodin with his more figurative and narrative style, and Arp with his biomorphic forms. The choreography found the perfect balance between narration and abstraction. On one hand, the forms the dancers embodied were so literal that occasionally I would hear an “ah” as someone recognized Rodin’s The Centauress (1901–4)or the couple from his The Kiss (ca. 1882). Yet the abstraction of Arp’s figures was equally present in the dance. After all, at the core of De Keersmaeker’s understanding of choreography is embodied abstraction. The choreography of Dark Red—Fondation Beyeler made room for narrative moments to surface every now and then, but eliminated all dependence on imitation. This makes sense if you consider how Arp and even Rodin (despite his figurative bent) tried to avoid imitation in their works. (Question 55: Can representation be achieved without mimesis?)

Indeed, the meeting between dance and sculpture appeared natural and effortless. This was possible because of the intrinsic similarities between these mediums in relation to form and three-dimensionality. What made this meeting even more rich was the fact that the processes at work within the differing art forms also share affinities. Despite the drastic contrast of stone versus flesh, clearly related methodologies are discernible across the respective artistic researches of De Keersmaeker, Rodin, and Arp. One strong example relates to processes of fragmentation and assemblage—techniques developed by Rodin, expanded by Arp, and pushed even further by De Keersmaeker in an entirely different medium. (Question 86: How can this be entirely different?)

The choreographic base of this work is a long phrase of movement, manipulated in various ways across each two-hour cycle. To create this phrase, first De Keersmaeker made a selection from the sculptures on display in the exhibition. From this, the dancers each chose a couple of works and decided how to embody them. Next, movements were created to travel between these sculptural positions, resulting in fragments of movement. According to the chronology of the exhibition, these fragments were assembled together, piece by piece, until a long, complex sequence of dance was produced, full of detail, dynamic, rhythmic play, soft and sharp qualities. In many ways this is not so unlike Rodin’s use of assemblage—he would take an arm from here, a torso and a hand from there, and puzzle them together into something new. (Question 49: Would that foot go well with that hand?) This is evident in works like La Main du Diable (1903), which was created both through assemblage and by playing with scale (a large hand holding a small woman), just as De Keersmaeker does. And then, on top of this choreographic assemblage of fragmented movement came the fragmentation of time. The speeding up, slowing down, and retrograding of time created infinite possibilities for counterpoint when the dancers themselves were assembled side by side. It was a limitless combination of sculptural pairings, just as Rodin liked to do. Another apt example is his Femme Accroupie (ca. 1882–85), which he flipped to a horizontal axis and placed high up in the arms of a man, becoming Je Suis Belle (ca. 1885). (Question 50: Would that woman fit in his arms?) De Keersmaeker’s approach to dance is also focused on shifting between the vertical and horizontal axes. (Question 51: Would this look better this way or that way?)

As with any durational work, including this live installation for the museum, one dives deeper into the watching as time passes, and this kind-of-a-conversation between the three artists—between sculpture and dance—took many different turns throughout the day. Sometimes it felt light and humorous; sometimes it got a bit heated or oppositional; sometimes the questions reached new levels of profound observation and concentration. As the metaphoric discussion continued, by midafternoon I realized how much I was drawn to one particular room of the exhibition—the one themed around “movement and transformation” (Bouvier did a clever job at accessibly organizing the sculptures into themed rooms). I was drawn to this one because of its connection to the room where the dancing was held. Metamorphosis is certainly the subject of many of the sculptures displayed here, exemplified by a work named that very thing—Arp’s Metamorphosis (1959)—but movement and transformation were also created through a different source, namely the public walking around the static figures. Sculptures, being three-dimensional, allow for change in form via change of viewpoint in a way that painting never can, and as Bouvier showed here, Rodin and Arp advanced this understanding of sculpture by creating works that become completely different when viewed from different angles. Consider for example Rodin’s Psyche with a Lamp (1899)—from one side it’s reminiscent of a mountain, while on the other it’s a person huddled in a cloak. We, the public, are the ones who activate the works with active viewing. (Question 9: How can we make something static move?)

And in the room where the dancing happened, a different kind of relationship between transformation and movement (not to mention artwork and public) occurred. In this case, we were the ones who were static, and now on the periphery instead of at the center of the space. We sat, or stood, like statues designed to rest up against the walls. The dancers, the ones who were embodying the “real” sculptures, were responsible for holding the movement. They gave life to stone. Perhaps Rodin and Arp would have appreciated this, for both of them were searching for an essence of life, a life force beneath their material. (Question 3: Can a thing made of stone have a life of its own? Question 4: What is it to be in search of living in art?)

I never stopped enjoying seeing the sculptures brought to life. This was a simple imagining, but nonetheless powerful. A particularly clear moment was when Sophia Dinkel seemed to fly in from the room next door where Rodin’s The Small Water Fairy (1903) was on display. It was like she had lifted off her little basin and burst into an energetic dance of speed and sensuality. I also enjoyed watching the public come out of their hypnotic daydream when music filled the space. The diverse mix of live and recorded music was an important feature of Dark Red—Fondation Beyeler. Bob Dylan’s voice in “The Times They Are a-Changin’” (1964) set a tone of nostalgia and contemplation to accompany a group moment of human simplicity—walking, intimate encounters, contact, dressing and undressing. At another moment, Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer” (1949) was played on the guitar by Lav Crnčevic while he danced his way through sculptural positions. It clearly amused many people to see The Thinker playing the guitar. While Crnčevic played, the song was sung by the dancers, who discreetly stood among the public. (Question 12: What do you hear?) Sometimes people would join in. As De Keersmaeker says, “Music is always inviting.”

Closing time was drawing nearer and I had been back and forth from the exhibition to the room of Dark Red multiple times, accumulating more observations along the way. I was curious about how the order of viewing affected the experience of the show. How would one perceive the dance if they walked through the exhibition first? Maybe by the time they arrived to watch the dance, they had a more informed eye, like those who made the noises of recognition. But what if they watched the dancing first? Would it make them more (consciously or unconsciously) physical in their viewing? Would they try to embody the figures in front of them, or see the works less as static objects and more as figures captured mid-movement? All visitors had the agency to come and go when they pleased, as they pleased, as many times as they pleased—something that dance in the traditional theater does not allow.

Although dance in a museum context lacks in certain things integral to the theater (mechanics of illusion, the ability to transport the viewer, the demand for time and attentiveness, the etiquette of silence), it inarguably gains in other areas. In the case of Dark Red—Fondation Beyeler, I would first and foremost pinpoint the fact that we were seeing sources simultaneously. In other words, to be able to watch both the choreography inspired by Rodin and Arp and at the same time the very sculptures that served as the inspiration gave the public more access to the choreography—where it came from, what it consisted of, why the dancers did this or arrived at that. As I mentioned before, this sharing of space provided the public with keys to alternative viewing of the sculptures. Perhaps imaginations became more active than they previously were while walking around those rooms. Perhaps bodies became more engaged in looking—holistic viewing.

What Dark Red also gains by being presented in a museum space, and not in a theater, is proximity between performer and viewer. I enjoyed seeing how the closeness of the public allowed the dancers to go internal. By this I mean that the necessity to project their movements to people seventy rows away and/or one floor above, frontally as opposed to multi-dimensionally, was not there. I was fascinated by how concentrative, introverted, and detail-oriented the dancers were. They could zoom in because they didn’t need to push out to us, and consequently, we zoomed in to them.

Question 100: What will you make next? This, the final question on the list, is the one the public likely wondered about as they were leaving. What will De Keersmaeker and the Rosas dancers do next? A great part of Dark Red’s intrigue lies in its adaptability. As a project that facilitates meetings between visual art, choreography, and architecture, it is never the same. Dark Red is a process of questioning what dance can do in spaces outside of the theater, as well as how dance as a live art can be in dialogue with non-live arts like sculpture. Question 53: Where will this process take me? To other conversations and to new lists of questions, for sure.

Tessa Hall