“The Subtle Interplay between the I and the Me”—Art and Choreography Dark Red at the Kolumba Museum, Cologne

Published on 24.08.2021, 11:08

a text by Barbara von Flüe

Chapter 1: Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker/Rosas, Dark Red

You have no choice but to accept that (dance) disappears. It is precisely for this reason that I believe that dance is the most contemporary art. Consequently, the tension between the past, the present, and the future is considerable. You dance with your history in your body, with your experience of the now and looking to the future.
— 
Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, 2018[1]

The beginning was silent. The floors of the Kolumba Museum in Cologne are covered with pencil and gold-leaf lines—a drawing that spans the rooms. It lays over the architecture, delicate and restrained, like a topographical map based on geometric shapes. In the largest and central exhibition space, thirteen dancers stand in a circle, their faces turned to each other. Nothing can be heard but their breathing. Slowly, the audience fills the room—clothes rustle, someone clears their throat. The visitors find their places, spread out along the walls; the crowd’s initial hustle and bustle fizzles out; the guests form a lively architecture surrounding the central circle. Silence. After some time, the dancers start making minute movements. A head turns to the right, a foot outward. A hand raises to chest level, a torso turns to the left. Connections form between some dancers, as if their movements were referring to each other’s. In their body positions we recognize the characteristic postures of the apostles in El Greco’s paintings, which we saw in printed color copies lying on the floor a few rooms earlier.[2] The movements executed are so minimal that the subtlest changes become charged with meaning: we perceive energy fields which—much like in the paintings—primarily unfold in the areas between both hands and the gaze. Their character and quality changes with every movement. After half an hour, the movements increase. Like an ever-growing wave, they intensify until the tension discharges abruptly. The dancers simultaneously fall backwards, leave the circle, and disperse into the adjacent exhibition rooms. 

Dark Red is the first chapter of an exhibition that explores the interactions between dance and the visual arts under the title “The Subtle Interplay between the I and the Me.”[3] In cooperation with Tanz Köln and curator Hanna Koller, we invited Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and her company Rosas to develop a new work for the Kolumba’s architecture in the context of this exhibition. At the same time, we made the entire building available to her, combined with the proposal to select works from our collection and present them on the first floor of the exhibition together with her own drawings. Dark Red was staged for one week in September 2020 during the museum’s opening hours. It was thus less of an isolated event than a clear prelude to a project that continuously changed as it came together in a public build-up phase and in close collaboration with theinvolved artists over the following seven weeks. 

In preparing the exhibition, we were not so interested in the motivic interferences between dance and visual art—say, for example, in Matisse’s dancers or Degas’ short-skirted ballerinas. Rather, we set out on the trail of a thesis succinctly formulated by art historian Johannes Odenthal: “Modernism in dance—from today’s perspective—introduced the body into art history as an existential starting point for artistic expression and exerted immense influence on the other arts.”[4] We started our research in the 1970s, a time when conceptual and institution-critical strategies were prevalent in art, and the body was being increasingly politicized by feminism and the gay rights movement, among others. With early works by Heinz Breloh, Bernhard Leitner, Richard Tuttle, and Hannah Villiger, we present artists who take their own bodies as the starting point for their work and thus bring a subjectivity that was frowned upon at the time back into the arts. 

Interestingly, their paths could have crossed at a place that became significant for the interaction between the arts: Judson Memorial Church, a Lutheran church in lower Manhattan, New York that organized workshops and performance evenings with artists and dancers (including Carl André, Robert Morris, Robert Rauschenberg, Carolee Schneemann, Trisha Brown, Simone Forti, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer) in addition to social and political projects.[5] The “Concerts of Dance” performed at this venue, starting in 1962 and known as “Judson Dance Theater” after 1963, comprised sculpture, movement, environment, film, and dealing with costumes and lighting. Their common interests were the exploration of gesture, theatricality, space, and time. What connected the actors from different disciplines were shared questions that focused on the working process and thus on temporality and performativity. Furthermore, the workshop leader at the time, Robert Dunn, insisted that the choreographies and performances be accompanied by graphic notation or writing: “graphic notation… is part of the conception of dance. What the choreographer has to do is to choose a world of movement… to invent or choose the graphic side and invent and choose the correlations.”[6]

Just as the conception of dance radically changed with these transdisciplinary experiments which led to the emergence of what we now understand as contemporary dance, the questions that this contact led to in the visual arts charted our course in the conception of our exhibition. When the working process is preserved as a trace in the work, can I also mentally reconstruct it as a viewer? How does this change the status of the work: does it remain an immobile object, or does it take on a performative character? How does this work address its counterpart, me, the viewer? What kind of standpoint does it assign to me? Does it activate my visual perception, or does it lead me to an expanded bodily perception? What role do bodily experiences and memories play in the perception of the world to begin with? Is there a specifically bodily way of thinking? How do individual and cultural memory come together in my body? Which narratives inscribe themselves, and what consequences do they have on my actions, my gestures and habitus, my language, my thinking, my gender, my desires? 

 

Partly as a result of the Judson Dance Theater’s activities, dance began migrating from the stage to museums in the early 1970s. The American artist Richard Tuttle recounted the lasting impression made on him by Trisha Brown’s performances at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1971. His work Ten Kinds of Memories and Memory itself—a performative installation consisting of ten drawings that the artist lays out on the floor using hemp ropes, which he first realized in San Francisco, two years after Brown’s performances—can be understood as a performance of physical memory. The gestures suspended as a trace in the work open up a space of possibility that invites viewers to perform the movements mentally and relate them to their own bodies. But what changes when dance leaves the stage and becomes part of an exhibition? When the site of its performance is no longer the theater but the museum? When the museum’s conditions—its architecture, lighting, opening hours, rules, and codes of conduct—are applied to dance? Conversely, which traces does dance leave in the museum? 

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker has engaged with these questions intensively; not only in the context of her 2015 adaptation of an earlier work, Work / Travail / Arbeid,[7] for Wiels in Brussels, but also in the Dark Red Research Project, which was developed over several years and achieved its first concrete form in 2020 with the version for the Kolumba’s rooms. In the context of our exhibition, we were not only interested in the finished production, but also and especially in the choreographic work leading up to the piece. Since dance is an ephemeral cultural practice, how can its movements be formed, archived, and transmitted? Can choreographic work be exhibited? Although scores are used in music to fix the “original” and enable performances long after the composer’s death, there are no globally valid notation systems for dance. Choreographers work with individual recording systems, with text-image spaces that offer traces and paths leading back to practice. The drawings by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker exhibited on the first floor of Kolumba were created in the context of Dark Red. They are based on geometric shapes and mathematical principles (squares, circles, dodecahedrons, Fibonacci sequences, etc.), which also underlie her earlier projects as abstract ideas. They are not scores in any conventional sense, nor are they concepts or instructions. Rather, these drawings move between the idea and its physical materialization—between sign and flesh. As notations, they structure the moving body in space and time. It thus becomes clear that bodily knowledge is always involved in choreographic work, in a process that moves back and forth between proposal, realization, and materialization. The embodiment of these abstractions can only succeed with the help of the dancers, who transform these forms into concrete movements by contributing their own bodies and histories. 

In our exhibition the drawings are presented with works from the Kolumba’s collection. Upon climbing the stairs, you encounter a flock of starlings flying through the air in changing formations in a wall-high video projection by Jan van Ijken. We also encounter a fascination with order in nature in an ink drawing by Hildegard Domizlaff, who captured the delicate structures of oat plants in the 1960s. Other exhibited works demonstrate that for Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker choreographic work always has a political component: the depiction of the Last Judgment in a Russian icon from the early 18th century leads us, via its elaborately staged topography of the afterlife, into a Christian system of values in which society is divided into good and evil, and paradise or hell is reserved for each respectively. Made of a combination of different materials, Simon Troger’s sculpture of St. Michael was probably produced around 1725 in southern Germany for a private context and also points in this direction. Drawing on the ideas of the Counter-Reformation, the sculpture presents the archangel Michael as an androgynous celestial figure in white ivory, while the devil—the adversary of the Roman Catholic Church and the loser of this duel—is depicted as a hermaphrodite in black ebony. The theatrical staging of the sculpture, which is illuminated by a spotlight that casts a monstrous-looking shadow on the wall, is continued in the adjacent armarium, whose walls are covered in black velvet. There we find the first sheet of Otto Dix’s etching cycle Der Krieg (1924)—a skull eaten by worms, a memento mori of WWI’s gruesome battles. In the room’s undefined darkness, we hear a soft song by the Beatles, written in 1968 by John Lennon and Paul McCartney with the civil rights movements and the associated unrest in the USA in mind: “Blackbird singing in the dead of the night / Take these broken wings and learn to fly /…You were only waiting for this moment to be free / Blackbird fly, blackbird fly….” Here, at the latest, we are reminded of the fascinating spectacle of starling flocks, whose synchronous, wave-like movement seems like a constantly changing organism in its own right and also protects the individual birds from attackers. 

In the daylight of the second exhibition floor, we come across a golden line that leads us toward the central and largest exhibition space. It marks a golden segment of the building and is part of Dark Red's topographical system, which was developed from the vocabulary of drawings and spans a branching network of floor drawings. This system also emphasizes the qualities of Peter Zumthor’s architecture, whose proportions, materials, and atmospheres are incorporated into the choreography of the piece. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker studied the building intensively; she not only worked from floor plans and blueprints, but visited the building at different times of day to familiarize herself with the museum’s body. Much like at Wiels in Brussels, she largely dispenses with artificial light in Kolumba in order to make the changes in daylight perceptible inside the building. She thus places the site of the performance in the continuity of a larger whole and follows Eastern philosophies such as Daoism, which conceive of the world in a state of constant flux.[8] As in the drawings, here we find a connection between the concrete and the abstract, between the material and the immaterial, between microcosm and macrocosm. The spiral is symbolic of the polar forces that permeate everything like yin and yang. As a leitmotif, it represents the two existential movements of opening/dedication and closing/withdrawal.

“Is there any such thing as a natural order in the universe and, if so, how can that be embodied in a performance?” The polar energies in nature led Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker to consider her own body, which follows these energies in the process of breathing—a movement that is simultaneously the finest, the most continuous, and the most intimate. Much like the spiral, we open ourselves up to the world as we inhale, in order to then withdraw back into ourselves as we exhale. Breathing connects us to each other and the world, a finding that led to painful restrictions during the current pandemic. The dictum “my breathing is my dancing” sums up this radical concentration on one’s own body as a working principle, which is essential for Dark Red's choreography.[9] It was realized to the sounds of Salvatore Sciarrino’s Opera per Flauto, which combines the movement of dance with the movement of music. 

From a distance we hear the shrill tones of a concert flute. Fast, nervous, arythmic musical passages fill the almost twelve-meter-high hall, which multiplies the sounds through long, drawn-out echoes until they take on a life of their own. The dancing, too, has sped up in the meantime. Like the birds in the video, the dancers rush in flock-like constellations from the center of the building to the adjacent cabinet rooms and back again; tempo and acceleration alternate with slowing down and gathering. Breathing out. Individual dancers break away from the group, veering off to follow an individual choreography. Others cross the swarm with decisive gestures, without disturbing the dynamics of the collective movement. Again and again, the dancers exchange positions, lithely relating to each other through their gazes and bodies. The energy develops horizontally. We perceive how intensely the individual dancers are connected with each other. They show us how leadership can be easily and playfully shared—in a democratic collaboration where places are constantly exchanged. The experience of a shared space where the individual merges into the collective is also reflected in the working process that underlies the piece. In contrast to the visual artists in the exhibition, who develop their works alone or in friction and confrontation with their material, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s choreographies are created in an “almost political situation” where the experience, knowledge, and energy of different generations are brought together. “There is this tension between the fixed work and the fact that it always needs to be embodied again. The work is never mine alone. New dancers, in their turn, take it out of my hands and add something that I had not expected, and that I could not have given to the piece in the first place. I don’t consider dance hermetically sealed, but a living organism in constant flux.”[10] The experience of a shared space becomes much more intense in the museum than in the conventional black box of the theater: as visitors we do not just sit in front of the stage but become part of it. We choose our own point of view by moving. We are in contact with the dancers, just as the dancers react to our presence by adjusting their paths—creating situations of closeness and intimacy only to return to distance. This proximity between audience and dancers creates a tension between the meticulously predetermined choreography and unexpected moments that can only develop in a museum. Anyone who was present for the whole five-hour duration of the performance could see that the choreography kept changing constantly, that it was rewritten from run to run, from day to day. 

In a passageway between two exhibition spaces—a situation where we can hardly avoid each other—a duet develops between two dancers physically entangled with each other. Their movements are tenacious and demand all their strength—it is as if they are simultaneously clinging to each other while pushing each other away. They play with their weight, leaning against each other, supporting, carrying, holding each other in a symbiosis that requires mutual trust. The architecture is also incorporated into this intimate situation, as the dancers repeatedly lean and push against the walls, letting the walls carry and guide them. The tenderness in these touches is at once impressive and disturbing, the care and vulnerability revealed in them, unfamiliar. As in the beginning of the piece, the dancers focus on the smallest bodily movements, creating an atmosphere of closeness and intensity that is transmitted to the audience. It is as though the vibrating stillness settles on our bodies; we experience it as an intensification of our perception, as an experience of duration or presence. Inhale. Exhale. 

Now, at the very latest, we recall one of the sources feeding the dancers’ movements: Christ and the twelve apostles in the paintings of El Greco. When we conceive of the body as an archive—as the dancer Koffi Kôkô put it in 2004, “the body is a library”[11]—we arrive at new perspectives on the images that have been so often shown and reproduced: we no longer only see Christ and his twelve disciples in their culturally handed-down roles of leader and follower; rather we arrive at a view of thirteen individuals whose bodies can tell us something about themselves and their relationship to one another. It remains difficult to uncover the knowledge stored in these painted bodies on the basis of the paintings alone. However, the performative re-stagings or re-enactments, which are carried out more or less explicitly at various point in Dark Red, offer us new ways of accessing that knowledge. The historical event is made experienceable, and not just as something whose meaning is clear from the outset. Instead, we experience the past as something that is only reopened through embodied interpretation, as something transferred into the present and put up for discussion. In this context, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s sentence quoted at the beginning—“You dance with your history in your body, with your experience of the now and looking to the future”—acquires a whole new meaning: in embodiment or repetition there is the power for change, for rewriting history so that it can become relevant in the present. What does it mean when Christ is embodied by a dancer who trained in Latin America, where he was in contact with the tradition of dancers who emigrated there, then received his second training at P.A.R.T.S. in Brussels, where he studied contemporary practices, release techniques, and theory to become a “reflective dancer”? What does it mean when the twelve apostles are embodied by dancers from nine different nations? 

Now, as we leave the building and take the path across the first exhibition floor, further questions descend on us: does the body language of the duets we just experienced coincide with the pathos formulas of battle and victory that we know so well from art history? Do we notice how much the image of masculinity, as we know it from the Western art handed down through our museums, is characterized by qualities like independence and strength? How little we associate masculinity with dependence and vulnerability, and how strangely the softness and tenderness seems to touch us in the context we have just participated in? Temporality doesn’t usually play any role in exhibitions. To exaggerate, we experience museum spaces with an idea of sustained duration—we see static objects, realized for eternity. In dance and the performance arts, we experience art as a process that takes place in time. In the interplay of the two, the temporality of dance is transferred to the format of the exhibition. We experience this transfer through the intensity with which museum objects now address us. The transience of dance requires another form of presence—it connects us with the here and now. Can this experience of history as something living, of “doing history,” be brought back into the institution of the museum? Can the museum be thought of as a versatile archive that conceives of research and science as art, which must be repeatedly read against the grain in order to open it up and project it into the future? 

At the end we encounter a three-faced dancer. He stands lonely on his small pedestal. In the moment, we are less interested in the traditional meaning of embodying the Holy Trinity. We are more interested in his gaze, which simultaneously looks into the past, the present, and the future; it makes us think about the significance of dance in spiritual practices such as shamanistic rituals or the Christian liturgy. In the context of Dark Red, the representation of the vultus trifrons or three-faced figure—which was not accepted by the official church in the 18th century but nevertheless widespread in folk art—becomes a programmatic leitmotif we can use to orient ourselves once outside the door and back in everyday life. How will we be able to support each other, to trust each other? How will we be allowed to depend on each other at a time when our foundation is being shaken so vehemently? Does the uncertainty we find ourselves in at the moment hold an opportunity to rethink community and also to practice it anew? To rewrite the choreography of social togetherness? 

Barbara von Flüe

Text translated by Good & Cheap Translators

[1] Christian Dumais-Lvowski (ed.), Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker / Rosas, 2007–2017, Arles/Paris/Brussels, 2018, o.p.

[2] The originals are in Toledo: El Greco, Christ and Apostles, c. 1610–1614, Toledo, Museo del Greco and Cathedral. The paintings originally hung in the Hospital de Santiago de Toledo. They depict Christ and the twelve apostles with the exception of Judas, who was replaced by Paul.

[3] We owe the title of the exhibition to Hannah Villiger (1951–1997), who noted this sentence by Marcel Duchamp in her diary in September 1989. With it, she describes the radical self-referentiality that is the starting point for her own artistic work. 

[4] Johannes Odenthal (ed.), Das Jahrhundert des Tanzes, Berlin 2020, p. 3. Original: “Die Tanzmoderne hat – aus der Perspektive von heute – den Körper als existentiellen Ausgangspunkt künstlerischen Ausdrucks in die Kunstgeschichte eingeführt und immensen Einfluss auf die anderen Künste ausgeübt.”

[5] The parish had organized exhibitions with visual artists since the 1920s. Howard Moody, pastor from 1957 to 1992, hired Al Carmine in the 1960s, who, as the person responsible for exhibitions and events, followed two principles: “to apply no censorship once he had agreed to add a piece or performance to the program, and to show no religious works.” See Pauline Chevalier, “‘Dance is hard to see.’ The Judson Dance Theater and the Visual Arts,” in Sarah Burkhalter and Laurence Schmidlin (eds.), Spaceescapes. Dance & Drawing since 1962, Zurich 2017, pp. 130-146, here p. 132.

[6] Ibid. p. 134.

[7] Elena Filipovic (ed.), Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker: Work / Travail / Arbeid, Brussels 2015. 

[8] See Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker in conversation with Bojana Cvejić in En Atendant & Cesena, Carnets d'une choréographe, vol. II, Brussels 2013, pp. 26–37.

[9] In the earlier productions En Atendant (2010) and Cesena (2011), Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker also took everyday movements as her starting point, for example walking or striding (“My walking is my dancing”). All quotes from Christian Dumais-Lvowski (ed.), Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker / Rosas, 2007 – 2017, Arles/Paris/Brussels, 2018, o.p.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Johannes Odenthal, “The Body is a library – Conversation with Koffi Kôkô,” in Haus der Kulturen der Welt (ed.), The Third Body. Das Haus der Kulturen der Welt und die Performing Arts, Berlin 2004, pp. 49-52.