Dark Red at Kolumba: When Things Fold to Infinity

Publié le 14.04.2021, 16:01

By Rathsaran Sireekan

One’s experience of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Dark Red at Kolumba, Cologne, began with interplays between light and darkness, between the lower floor and the upper floor. On the way to the latter, where the show would take place, one encountered first the exhibition The subtle interplay between the I and the me, a select few objects handpicked by De Keersmaeker herself. All came from the Kolumba museum’s collection except for Jan van Ijken’s short film The art of flying (2015), which was on loan and the first thing one saw upon entering. Behind the fortress-like walls, whose heavy opacity blocks natural light, a sharp rectangular shaft of artificial light split the darkness open, at the end of which, as if coming to the rescue, appeared Simon Troger’s androgynous Saint Michael figurine (before 1725). Together with van Ijken’s film, which captures the mysterious flights of a massive, dense starling swarm morphing almost miraculously into different shapes without colliding, Troger’s divine figurine hinted at what would unfold on the upper floor, where outside light can make its way in. Such connections, however, could only be realized in retrospect.

The rectangular shaft of light bathing Saint Michael was doubled in the pitch-black box nearby, which you entered to see Otto Dix’s Skull from the portfolio Der Krieg (1924). The angelic light coming from outside of the box, whose source was unclear, salvaged the macabre etching on paper from sinking into the abyss of darkness. This interplay between the angelic and the demonic lent a significant religious undertone to the interplay between light and darkness. Interlacing the lower and the upper floors together are repetitions of these box-like spaces whose thick, opaque walls offer a fixed, discrete opening for entry, exactly as a crypt, whose best interest is to guard its own interiority. (Rooms 18 and 19 on the upper floor are other, perhaps even better examples of this.) These crypt-like spaces proliferate at Kolumba and culminate in a labyrinthine passage where, while making your way to the upper floor, one long, narrow, hermetic staircase unexpectedly twists and turns into another, another, and yet another, like an unresolved maze whose only solution is repetitions to infinity.

This accumulated effect was further multiplied by Josef Albers’s painting green and grey against large brown (1955) and, most mesmerizingly, the sculpture Triple Face (vultus trifon) (artist unknown). In the former, a square is embedded in another and yet another, and in the latter, a seventeenth-century representation of the Holy Trinity has three conjoined faces—three beards, three noses, three mouths, and four eyes. Especially when walking around it in a circle, one gets a sense of an infinite recurrence of a sequence.

All of these, in turn, connected to De Keersmaeker’s own Untitled series of drawings (2020) of embedded geometric shapes made in situ for and on loan to Kolumba. Organized in sequential clusters of 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 6, 1, 6, and 1, these thirty-three drawings, all the same size, were accompanied by another, bigger one, a stand-alone. As a series the drawings depict the natural inseparability between the pentagon and the hexagon—the pairing of which, in one drawing, manifests as a pentagram with a hexagram tucked inside. Other drawings show the mutual embeddedness of the pentagon and the dodecahedron (a geometric solid with twelve pentagonal faces); the pentagram, the circle, and the square; and the circle, the pentagram, and the spiral.

Considered collectively, these drawings and the accumulated-embedded effect ultimately embodied a metaphysical proposition that all forms and matter in the universe are infinitely divisible and infinitely composable—that there is always something else embedded, or folded, inside a thing considered. This is where things fold to infinity, to borrow from Gilles Deleuze.

Among these drawings, which offered insights into De Keersmaeker’s work process at Kolumba and her previous projects, one detailed a set of different numerical equations, all of which came under the auspices of the number twelve—a choice suggesting that De Keersmaeker sees this sublime number as best representing infinite divisibility, a metaphysical principle underpinning not only the show, but the world and the universe. This sublime number, in turn, acted as a hinge around which other components of the show pivoted, namely the dodecahedron, the twelve volumes of Salvatore Sciarrino’s Opera Per Flauto, and El Greco’s painted twelve Apostles (ca. 1610–14), which in reality consists of Christ the Savior and the twelve apostles, hence represented in the performance by thirteen male Rosas performers.

Another, bigger drawing—of great significance and the only one framed—depicted not only the embeddedness but the movement of the interlacing lines and curves whose crossing makes a constellation of four overlapping circles in different sizes. Each of these, in turn, was enmeshed by a pentagram and a pentagon. Unlike the others in the series, this drawing had the word “Kolumba” assigned to it. Again here, the significance of this could only be perceived retrospectively (hence, more below).

Upstairs, conversations between circles, curves, and lines continued on the floor of the octagon-shaped main hall where the performance of Dark Red would begin. Tucked in the midst of these tangencies—where lines and curves touched each other explicitly or implicitly—was a golden pentagram, at the far end of which was a black football, an invention whose surface boasted the mesmerizing yet often-overlooked fact that the pentagon and the hexagon are two distinct shapes but inseparable and that, integral to the circle, they are infinitely divisible and composable.

While the pentagram, especially when read in the religiously rich space of Kolumba,[1] is an ancient Christian symbol, the black football on the large constellation of embedded circles redefined the performance space as planetary orbits whose metaphysics, through De Keersmaeker’s own curatorial choice of objects, was governed by the principle of infinite divisibility and composability. This, along with her choreography of the space, which gave a religious meaning to the interplay between light and darkness, in turn defined a hierarchical relationship between the lower and the upper floors and thoroughly set the tone for the much-awaited Dark Red, a show locatable between Christianity and metaphysics.

Toward the Malleable Bodies

At the auspicious moment of twelve noon, the performance of Dark Red finally started. Thirteen Rosas male dancers slowly formed a circle, adding to the embeddedness of those already marked on the floor. In contrast to the dark lower floor, natural light on the upper made varied colors thriving and visible. Isaac Newton’s color wheel in Opticks (1704) was most probably being referenced here. The exuberant dark red and blue colors of two dancers’ costumes stood out. Their peers’ softened hues varied between the primaries, but concentrated on variants of blue. Through different color codes, each of them represented the Apostles and Christ. The saintly hand gestures abstracted from El Greco’s The Apostles were collectively and very slowly performed in the first half of this inaugural act. In between each gesture came a long pause of non-action. The mood was subdued. The change from one saintly gesture to another took place very subtly, involving miniscule movements. Aside from the circle that they had formed, these were rectilinear bodies with sharp angles. With their backs to their immediate audience, which was either sitting or standing against the surrounding walls, the dancers’ bodies were perceived in a flat dimension, like Stonehenge. Of particular pleasure, however, was when they tilted their bodies simultaneously to one side and effected a collective inflection of gravity defiance. This was a choreographic principle already explored in the earlier editions of the yearlong project at different museums, of which Dark Red was the culmination.[2] Gravity defiance was folded into all the choreographies featured at Kolumba.

Watching these subtle movements unfold made Kolumba’s space strangely quieter than it had been before the performance started. With our eyes guided by the minute shifts in the dancers’ bodies, the ubiquitous silence ushered in a state of meditation, not alone but together with these “dancing” bodies. Strangely becoming more aware of your own breaths, this was the point where breathing became dancing, and you were part of it, too.[3] In the silence you could hear a pin drop; the eeriness of the empty streets during lockdown in Brussels, which I carried with me to Cologne, seeped in. In the second half of this inaugural “dance” the abstracted postures accelerated, bringing the previous saintly poses together again, this time still unrushed, but now without the pauses. The last posture saw all of the dancers tilt themselves backward, seemingly trying to fall on their backs, yet skillfully balancing out. This particular act of gravity defiance made the performance feel cosmic, especially considering the orbiting marks and the orb (the football) on the floor. Then they dispersed.

While the first part presented a choreography of angular bodies, the second started off with the complete opposite: an exuberant series of supple spins from the dancer in the exuberant blue costume. Light and crisp, yet with unforgiving vitality, the spiraling, based on the figure of the rotating circle, was simultaneously rendered with the air-slashing of the hands struck out horizontally and diagonally to form the figure of the pentagram. Those who had seen De Keersmaeker’s Kolumba drawing earlier on the lower floor immediately recognized the connection—that the choreography was folded in the drawing and the drawing in the choreography—a mutual envelopment that rendered the geometric shapes in the Kolumba drawing and the dancers’ bodies infinitely divisible and (re)composable modular units.

Then came another surprise that had been hinted at by something on the lower floor. A theatrical element was mobilized, a suggestion of some sort of narrative made. The dancer in the exuberant blue costume kicked the football away from the orbits. That full bang unleashed an unmistakable streak of masculinity. He then walked toward his peer in the exuberant dark red costume, already waiting on the edge with hands lowering at the waist level, gesturing a saintly accommodation—something very close to femininity. At this moment, Salvatore Sciarrino’s Opera per Flauto chimed in, its projections of disembodied harmonics enhancing the cosmic feel that the gravity-defying choreography had made ubiquitous. Taller and bigger, the blue spinner then flanked his friend’s saintly body, so close their faces almost touched, as if exchanging something very intimate. The proximity was aching; you could feel the warmth their bodies and breaths were giving each other. While their eyes never met until the very end of this unexpectedly tender homoerotic exchange, they gazed at the audience, sharing the intimacy. Then the blue dancer, making a gentle advance, laid his hand close to his peer’s chest. Each of these gestures lingered for several eternal-seeming minutes. The details and sequences at the other round of the performance later that day varied, but the spirit remained the same.

At one point of this minimalist pas de deux, their position changed into that of a tableau vivant whose iconography positioned the dark red dancer as a female being pursued by a male counterpart; while “she” bent forward as if fleeing the pursuit, “he” stood tall, hovering, with eyes, but not face, begging for “her” acceptance. In this moment neutrality became polarity; members of the brotherhood became lovers, taking up the gestures and morphing their bodies into the culturally defined binaries of feminine-masculine exchange. The body of the dark-red dancer especially became malleable and temporarily a locus of androgyny, where the rigid male-female binary was destabilized. This was the moment where Saint Michael on the lower floor most vividly came to mind, making the two floors distinct yet inseparable.

The following act brought the choreography even further away from the rigid body. The blue dancer left. The dark red was joined by two other dancers. The binarism of the pas de deux continued, but was now complicated by relations to a third party. De Keersmaeker’s counterpoint technique was here very interestingly reinterpreted. The dark red and the other dancer started off with echoing and improvising on each other’s diagonal bodily positioning, and limped as they individually interpreted the gravity-defying principle. The third party, then, came in to undercut this mirroring with rounds of spiraling. Unlike in De Keersmaeker’s Vortex Temporum (2013), the rotating velocity of the spiraling in this part was much more moderate—that is, airy, graceful, and appropriately saintly. After a while, their movements grew into one another’s. The mirroring pair incorporated more spiraling patterns into their moves, while the third party came to effect more diagonal lines into the circles he was embodying. This was another moment when one came to realize that the blueprint of the choreography was De Keersmaeker’s Kolumba drawing: spiraling circles with pentagrams enveloped inside.

Distinct in this section of the shared choreography—where individual dancers, similar to other works by De Keersmaeker, have room to decide their own improvisation of the piece’s buttressing principle—was the inflection of the rectilinear trajectory of the hard body. This was achieved by sensuous series of supple hip undulations whereby the dancers created continuous ripples of curves, resulting in the bodies’ cores and contours becoming fluid. This was the moment where the hard and rigidly defined male bodies were deterritorialized and opened up to embrace other possibilities than the monolithic masculinity that the majority of cultures, including Christianity, dictate. Although Dark Red also saw De Keersmaeker adhere to her usual practice of working in the principles of her mediums, which in this case was the religiously rich architecture of Kolumba, she was not afraid to co-opt the context and challenge the establishment and the grand narrative attached to it. (Also noteworthy was De Keersmaeker’s choice of a nonwhite dancer for the show’s lead, the dark red.) This gives her choreography an edge and a significant political potentiality.

De Keersmaeker’s queering of the Christian body was achieved by turning the hard body malleable. Like other components of Dark Red, this malleability traced back to the Kolumba drawing, where the curves of the spinning circles, with arrows indicating movements and acceleration, were key in making the straight line of the body (now represented by the pentagram) inflect.

Dark Red and the Metaphysics of Curves

The argument that the choreography of Dark Red demonstrated a development from the hard body to the fluid one seems well echoed by the fact that De Keersmaeker’s own Kolumba drawing features not only lines, but, significantly, the curves of circles. Curves and curvature are the most important element of the mathematical tool known as calculus, invented independently by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz as a metaphysical explanation for change. Specifically, calculus is a mathematical account for the properties of curves and how rapidly they are changing. While Newton’s method focuses on the rate of change and movement and how quantities vary in time, Leibniz, more interested in space and himself a master of series expansion, used the method to divide up areas involving curves, such as the arch of a cathedral, into small slices (hence the name “infinitesimal calculus”) and then add them all up together to determine their values.[4] While Newton developed “infinite series,” a way of expressing something mathematically by infinite sums, Leibniz conceived his “monadology” as a formal general method of metaphysics where all truths of reason and substances (monads) can be reduced to calculations.[5]

Billed as a show inspired by Newton’s and Leibniz’s scientific discoveries—which, typical of seventeenth-century Europe, were inseparably entangled with religion—Dark Red did not make a clear distinction between these two deeply religious men, but integrated them seamlessly as a whole. For example, knowing that De Keersmaeker earlier drew on Johannes Kepler’s theory of astronomy in Somnia (2019), the embedded circles with the black football on the floor immediately brought to my mind the connection between Kepler’s theory and (later, after studying more on the subject) Newton’s theory of universal gravitation and the “Kepler problem,” which he solved via calculus. Besides this, a large portion of the show did rely on Leibniz’s theory of substances or monadology, which, according to Deleuze, is where things fold to infinity. This is the principle that, I argue, informed De Keersmaeker’s mobilization of the mise an abyme in her choreography/curation of the objects and space at Kolumba. (Defiance of) gravity and the show’s preoccupation with the relationship between a tangent and a curve, both of which are key to Newton’s and Leibniz’s discoveries, also dominated the choreography of Dark Red.

The latter was most prominent in Frank Gizycki’s interpretation of De Keersmaeker’s underlying principle of Dark Red. When he joined the dancer in dark red and formed a duo, he showed an astute understanding of calculus by kicking the ball to a certain point in the audience. As the ball stopped, he approached that particular point and marked it with his index finger while effecting his body and legs into diagonal lines in relation to the floor, forming what resembled a compass. This was then mirrored by the dark red and complicated by the spiraling of the other dancer, who altogether embodied De Keersmaeker’s signature counterpoint technique. This determination of a particular point is exactly what one does when one wants to find a tangent to a curve in order to mathematically determine the rate of acceleration.

As calculus marks out these differential values the body makes from one point to another, such differential values mean that the body is not rigid, but fluid—or, to use Leibniz’s own term, “elastic” (vis elastic).[6] As Deleuze explained in his 1986 lectures and subsequently in The Fold (1988), as opposed to René Descartes’s physics, Leibniz did not believe in the hard body and the Cartesian principle that regards the atom as the smallest unit of the hard body.[7] Against the Cartesian belief that formations of (hard) bodies are rectilinear and angular, Leibniz’s physics is one of elastic bodies; mathematical calculation centers on curvatures where the body’s sharp angles, according to Deleuze, get rounded off. This is when individual hard units become malleable aggregates.

We indeed saw this “rounding off” earlier when the diagonal binarism was complicated by the spiraling of a third party who was then joined by other dancers, who then scattered throughout the main octagonal hall, and together generated an infinite series of binaries and their endless complications. In fact, the choreography that came after this did treat the bodies further as malleable aggregates. That was when the thirteen saintly dancers came back to assemble and move en masse up and down as well as in and out of the main hall, into the adjacent room and back, exactly like those mysterious starling flights we saw morphing almost miraculously into different shapes without colliding in van Ijken’s The art of flying. Worth pointing out is that the different shapes the dancers, after the starlings, ended up collectively morphing into were not angular or rectilinear, but malleable curves. This “starling effect,” as I shall call it, was Dark Red’s further engagement with another important aspect of Leibniz’s (meta)physics, which, I propose based on certain evidence, also underpinned the show and De Keersmaeker’s conceptualization of it. That is, mirroring van Ijken’s film and following from Leibniz, when curves are the quintessence of one fluid body, their inflection—from a particular point of the straight line, which De Keersmaeker interpreted through her Kolumba drawing as the component of the pentagram—affects that of another body, which in turn affects another such that the impact of these inflections becomes infinite.

As Deleuze explained, “The pressure of coexisting bodies varies itself with the variations in the neighborhood.”[8] This not only makes curves the ideal genetic element of the elastic body, but also means that bodies are never alone as an isolated unit, but always en masse with other bodies. (This is, most probably, the reason why De Keersmaeker’s Kolumba drawing features not one pentagram embraced by one circle, but four of them overlapping and mutually embedded—the mise en abyme effect that brings back the principle of infinite divisibility of matter, a condition where things fold to infinity.) The infinite series generated from these infinite inflections of bodies as aggregates, in turn, resulted in the ensuing curvatures being variable, not constant, as we had witnessed from van Ijken’s starlings and the aforementioned part of Dark Red’s choreography.

But questions remain. What caused the point on each body to inflect and deviate from the otherwise straight line to which the body is naturally inclined? And what in these aggregates of bodies provides the order that prevents them (whether van Ijken’s starling or De Keersmaeker’s dancers in Dark Red) from colliding with one another? Here I turn to Alex Tissandier, whose concise summary of Deleuze’s reading of Martial Gueroult’s interpretation of Leibniz’s letters to Burchard de Volder might provide the needed answer: “From the perspective of the ‘Whole,’ the body’s curved movement results from its internal spontaneity. But from the abstract perspective of physics, the body’s curved movement is explained in terms of interaction with other bodies.” From this perspective, the same movement is at once determined by external and internal forces: “The motive force which causes movement is therefore understood by the physicist mechanically in terms of a surrounding environment, and by the metaphysician from inside, metaphysically, in terms of harmony of the body with the whole universe.”[9]

According to Deleuze, in Leibniz’s metaphysics, the inflections of a straight line with variable curvature reflect the element of spontaneity, which in turn reflects the individuality of the soul. The inflection of the body’s straight line is an event that occurs at a point and thus gives it its singularity. This “point of inflection”—a point where the curve changes direction—explains why each soul is unique, and why it will behave the way it does.[10]

Curves are indispensable to the figure of the spiral, which has dominated De Keersmaeker’s choreography. Particularly here in Dark Red, curves and the inflection that causes them gain a metaphysical ontology whereby the harmony between the individual and the collective—equally indispensable in De Keersmaeker’s ethics and relationship with her dancers in her company—can coexist. The structure of Dark Red too was divided by this balanced relationship between the collective and the individual. That is, guided by the space of Kolumba’s upper floor, where the octagonal hall encourages collective congregation, while its smaller crypt-like rooms and corners invite personal refuge and private cultivation, Dark Red started off with communal dances first in the hall before breaking off into individual acts at different corners of the upper floor. This was where each individual dancer was fully given a space to choreograph his own interpretations of De Keersmaeker’s blueprint: the Kolumba drawing.

Curves, or to be precise, the centers of curvature (according to Leibniz), were also the place where, on the upper floor, the soul or monad lay while the body dwelled on the lower floor of a metaphorical house. Hence the importance of the correspondence between Kolumba’s lower and upper floors, which I have been trying to establish and unpack. The unique location of each of these centers on the curves gives each monad its unique perspective on the world. The fact that each monad is located at a particular site on the curve means that that specific point of view to the world, like any vantage point on a city, affords the monad a particular clarity in one area and obscurity in others. (This is where El Greco’s View of Toledo [1596–1600] could very well become a case in point.) In Dark Red, this aspect of Leibniz’s metaphysics was brilliantly translated in De Keersmaeker’s choreographic interpretation of the Kolumba space. Not only did the performance of each part of Dark Red unfold in the way it avoided the center of Kolumba’s main octagonal hall, but De Keersmaeker also made use of Kolumba’s crypt-like structure to effect a limited point of view to the audience. For instance, when the starling effect was being choreographically translated, with the dancers moving in and out of the main octagonal hall to the adjacent rooms, some audience members sitting at particular corners of the hall were barred from seeing what unfolded inside the other rooms, while others could readily see. This astute interpretation of the museum space at Kolumba is a continuation of what De Keersmaeker began most prominently in Vortex Temporum, where the point of view or gaze in the museum—which is underpinned by a particular ideology—is decentered.

Another important aspect of Dark Red’s choreography that would become more intelligible when considered under Leibnizian metaphysics was when the thirteen dancers collectively inflected their bodies in ways that formed diagonal lines to the floor, and suddenly looked miraculously weightless. As a continuation and culmination of what De Keersmaeker had started earlier with presentations related to Dark Red at M HKA and BOZAR, these gravity-defying acts could be read in the context of Leibnizian metaphysics as a phenomenon whereby points of inflection are weightless and not subject to the “vector of gravity” or an external impulsion to move in a certain direction because they are instead governed by the internal spontaneity of the intrinsic singularities located at the center of curvatures.[11] Along with De Keersmaeker’s choreographic scheme, which valorized Kolumba’s light upper floor over the dark lower one, the monads or the reasonable souls, too, will always rise upward to the upper floor, as in Dark Red’s climactic moment when the thirteen dancers, while moving about en masse to produce the starling effect, incorporated exquisite continuous upward spiraling into the choreography. This was where the fluidity of the morphing bodies as aggregates almost miraculously became tangible waves of energy flying around the performance space. My body, too, felt these flows of energy piercing in and out, weaving me in with other bodies in the space.

Feeling that something in me had unblocked, I left Kolumba renewed. At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to impact the way we gather in public space and engage in civic participation, such a moment of assemblage as Dark Red, despite a lack of shoulders literally rubbing, held a particular political significance and potentiality.


[1] Kolumba is located on the site of the former St. Kolumba church and run by the Archdiocese of Cologne.

[2] These included The Dark Red Research Project, M HKA, Antwerp (2019) and Brancusi, BOZAR, Brussels (2019).

[3] The principle of extended choreography that includes the act of breathing was initiated in De Keersmaeker’s My Breathing Is My Dancing (2015).

[4] “Calculus,” In Our Time, BBC Radio4, a conversation between Melvyn Bragg and guests Patricia Fara, Simon Schaffer, and Jackie Stedall.

[5] Here I draw from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/leibniz/.

[6] Gilles Deleuze, “Leibniz and the Baroque” seminar, University of Paris, January 13, 1987, https://deleuze.cla.purdue.edu/seminars/leibniz-and-baroque/lecture-06.

[7] Gilles Deleuze, Le pli: Leibniz et le baroque (Paris: Minuit, 1988).

[8] Gilles Deleuze, “Leibniz and the Baroque” seminar, University of Paris, November 4, 1986, https://deleuze.cla.purdue.edu/seminars/leibniz-and-baroque/lecture-02.

[9] Alex Tissandier, “Affirming Divergence: Deleuze’s Reading of Leibniz” (PhD diss., University of Warwick, 2014), 159. This dissertation was published as a book of the same title in 2018 by Edinburgh University Press.

[10] Tissandier, “Affirming Divergence,” 160, 162.

[11] Tissandier, “Affirming Divergence,” 165.