Julia Rubies Subiros
It’s noon. In line outside the Kolumba museum in Cologne, I put my mask on, realizing this is one of the first performances I’ll see inside a closed space since the lockdown in March 2020.
I have come to see Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s new dance work developed especially for this venue. The dance materials for this piece are a continuation of her ongoing Dark Red Research Project. As part of this exhibition, De Keersmaeker also curated the second floor: together with some of her own drawings, she presents selected objects from the museum’s collection that are relevant to her practice and this work.
The new building sprouts from the ruins of a Late Gothic church, on its old foundations. It suggests a new appendage, a resistance to death, an adaptation to a new cultural landscape. Perforated gray brick walls repeat the broken elements of the church and suggest a peaceful and spacious spirit. Its soft tones loosen me as I enter.
Flocking birds in black and white occupy a wall on the second floor. They’re the first thing I see. They fly by a collection of statues, mostly religious iconography (such as the devil, portrayed as a woman of color, slain by a very white Archangel Michael), and sketches made specifically for this dance work. These sketches outline De Keersmaeker’s choreographic tools, such as magic squares and floor pattern designs. In main hallway I enter a pitch-black room haunted by an etching—Skull, a memorial to World War I—and a song, “Blackbird,” by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, which the program notes “was written in the context of the civil rights movement and related to the unrest in the USA in the early 1968.”
As these artifacts wash over me I continue to the next level. A golden line on the floor beckons me to follow its path. I look to my left and see plastified images of El Greco’s Twelve Apostles, reproductions of the original paintings, laid out on the floor.
The main room: thirteen male dancers form a circle in the center of the space. The audience leans in from the edges, watching attentively. The dancers perform a slow, gestural dance in unison while positioned on a circle drawn on the floor.
Under their feet drawings of pentagrams and lines cover the surface of the second floor, extending through rooms, creating the invariable topology of the piece. The performers resemble the Twelve Apostles through their embodied postures. There is a special focus on triangulation between hands and gaze. Michael Pomero, a Rosas dancer, later explains to me how through “paying attention to the shifts of posture, the anglings with the head and torso, and the details of the hands, we notice that each image holds something different. We realize the power of the gaze and its direction.” We are witnessing a moving landscape of plastified Apostles, a base material that will unravel throughout the choreography.
I am struck by the hierarchy of the dancers’ live, responsive, ephemeral bodies in contrast to the inanimate exhibits I walked through earlier. The fleetingness of the moment and the particularity of each dancer’s history require me to enter a state of presence that connects me to my own particular existence in time.
The gestural dance in the circle accelerates, rising in intensity until the dancers together lean back on their vertical axes and spill out into the space, breaking the circle open.
A fiery solo erupts; it collides with a second body against the wall, turning into a mountainously still duet. A trio sweeps into the floor, dancing swiftly, and I notice Salvatore Sciarrino’s Opera per flauto (1977 - 1990) coming from another room. I follow the flutist’s call.
Chryssi Dimitriou is playing in a barren gray room with a high, hard-edged ceiling, reminiscent of a birdcage. We aren’t allowed to enter, but we can peek in from the entryway. Dimitriou’s ash-colored clothing camouflages her. Visceral, breathy, arrhythmical sounds rupture the air and hit the walls like echolocation. I feel as though I can see the notes thrown across the room and splashing against the walls.
The sound of the flute touches my ear. I recall that through touch we sense ourselves—we feel our periphery, place, and edges through the song of another. This tactile experience reminds me of the lack of tactility in our present moment. I experience a sense of heightened ephemerality in front of an incomprehensible nature who has come to the forefront, ripping at our artificially clockworked realities. I feel heavy at this observation.
A sense of melancholy drips into my body as I wonder whether contact professions, such as dancing, will go extinct. I wonder if this is partially what De Keersmaeker was reflecting upon when citing Melencholia I (1514), the painting by Albrecht Dürer, as one of her main inspirations for this piece. The painting describes for her the expression of the “impossibility of totally comprehending nature.” Listening to the flute, I try to grasp the complexity of comprehending myself, especially in these uncertain corona-times. Through Dimitriou’s playing I feel consoled that at least I can feel.
With this in mind, I walk back to the main room.
It’s pulsating with the presence of all 13 performers now occupying the space. Echoing the projection of birds from downstairs, they are flocking in an ever-shifting constellation. It’s a democratic form where leadership is shared in a live and playful way. Intelligent bodies constantly rearrange themselves while maintaining a shifting common and rotating front. Operating strongly through their peripheral vision and intuition, the dancers connect horizontally to generate dynamisms in the group—darting through space, finding pathways through the group, or keeping the core unit. This is unpredictable yet perfect. Together they generate a sense of “us,” transcending the individual into the collective.
The birds erupt from their formation, spreading diverse solos into the space, each falling into its own dance. I follow one such dance into another loomingly tall and frigid room, in which I can only see partially. The dancer I follow, Michael Pomero, is now wearing yellow working gloves and blue jeans, whipping a metallic wire in the air over his head. The whipping, gentle and circular, produces wind sounds at varying intensities. This image conjures direct confrontation with the unforeseeable forces of our environment—in this context, an essential worker endeavoring to domesticate a virus. I ask, however, who is taming whom. Is the human taming nature, or simply flocking with it like starlings?
The performers reassemble in two focal areas, meeting as duets and interacting with the walls. Performers engage through slow structures of counterweight, entering leaning relationships of reliance. Their counterbalanced movement is thick, almost magmatic, and they take time to shift from one position to the next. This dense, tensegral sharing of weight strikes a chord in me.
Contrary to the canonical way male bodies have been displayed (especially in Western European elitist art history, brought to you by museums), where the male figure is consistently an active agent, a superman, independent and erect on two feet or on a horse, chest up and out, here we are presented with male bodies in situations of dependency. They are sharing weight, inclined, unstable, holding on by as little as a finger or they will fall, displaying vulnerability and trust. Moreover, they are moving with sensitivity, gentleness, and a sense of deep listening—further countering the canon.
My reading of these male bodies offers new nuance to the exhibition on the second floor. In the display of artifacts such as the statue of the devil (recall, portrayed as a woman of color) being slain by Archangel Michael and the playing of “Blackbird,” I perceive a subtext for the exhibition presenting Euro-patriarchal ideologies (in this case, religious iconography) as continually responsible for the death of minority populations over time. Seeing these male bodies propose a different relationality to their own figures constitutes perhaps a new proposition of masculinity that tilts toward horizontality and greater liberation in society. Throughout the trajectory of this piece, we see these bodies unfurl from being Twelve Apostles, static and vertical, into much more nuanced positions and relationalities.
I sigh and hear my breath. I look around me.
People in the audience feel a pull to participate. A young visitor expresses themselves with a shoulder dance to the flutist’s music, while an older man is joining the magmatic duets by entering into expressive statuesque positions, like a living gargoyle. Both are wearing masks. An exhale emanates from a flute far away.
After the show, I ask Pomero about the implications of performing in a museum during the pandemic. He explains that the performers keep the movements at a relatively small scale in order not to be aggressive toward the audience (such as flinging sweat onto them). He mourns the spectators’ masks as a real barrier between audience and performers: “You couldn’t really feel the interaction. Compared to the intensity which was felt during Work/Travail/Arbeid (De Keersmaeker’s previous work in a museum), the same stake of intimacy wasn’t there.”
José Paulo dos Santos’s concluding solo shape-shifts through cycles of activation, almost as if reaching out for something, only to immediately collapse into a sense of doubt, echoing our feeling of impotence in relation to the larger forces around us.
The piece ends. We trickle out of the museum. The walls still emanate with everything that has occurred. The floor patterns become the sole protagonists in this emptiness, illustrating the topology of what has just happened and what will soon transpire again.
We leave the church and return to a world filled with the same questions. How will we touch others in the future? How are we choosing to align, lean, depend on, and support one another through this ungraspable uncertainty? What are the possibilities of this current moment taming us into togetherness? These questions in mind, my ears recalling Dimitriou’s flute—there is a solace in feeling. Even as there exists an “impossibility of totally comprehending nature,” there is at least a possibility to feel it.