ImPulsTanz: Spiegel – Ultima Vez/Wim Vandekeybus

July 23rd, 2007 § 5

Curiously, after Sister, the retrospective piece from Belgian choreographic legend Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker, her countryman Wim Vandekeybus has also come with a retrospective collage to ImPulsTanz. One could say that Vandekeybus and De Keersmaeker are the two most influential Belgian choreographers (Jan Fabre is missing from this list, but for much of his career Fabre has been more a theater director than a choreographer).


Vandekeybus and De Keersmaeker share a long standing collaboration with composer Thierry de May but otherwise have little in common. Vandekeybus’s approach to choreography is completely the opposite of De Keersmaeker. Vandekeybus does not seek subtle fluid moment or emotional nuance – but rather places his dancers in collision. The movement is almost always violent, even dangerous.


More Ultima Vez dancers have been severely injured on a per head basis than any other company – many dancers refuse an Ultima Vez invitation out of concern for their well-being. In the end, Vandekeybus has dealt with the health issue responsibly: Ultima Vez has a comprehensive insurance policy. Injured dancers remain with the company and on full salary until they heal.


Still, a year long injury does more damage than just the lost salary. A dancer’s career is short and dance form is fragile so losing a year of training and development and performance is a great risk. The rewards are substantial. Dancing in Ultima Vez is the ultimate performance high. You are working at maximum speed, in direct opposition to other bodies, in perfect timing. You will pay for your mistakes with at least bruises, so you don’t make any if you can help it.


And that is what we saw last night. Bodies moving at full speed. The approach to retrospective in Spiegel is very traditional. Spiegel is a greatest hits of Ultima Vez. We see the chairs from Wishing and Wanting.

We see the bricks from What the Body does not Remember. The stamping and chairs from Les Porteuses de Mauvaises Nouvelles. The slaughterhouse hooks from Inasmuch as Life is Borrowed.


The horse from In Spite of Wishing and Wanting played by Vandekeybus himself. Somewhat ironic in his own self-presentation. Not the clear unbridled passion of the original creation. At 43 one tends to do develop some perspective on the self. Clarity of passion wanes in favour of wisdom and irony. While wisdom and irony probably make a man easier to live with, they diminish purity of performance.

But the rest of the troupe are the long-haired sinewy European guys for which Ultima Vez is famous, along with a few amazing women dancers. Several are holdovers from Vandekeybus’s moody film Blush.


Ultima Vez dancers come from the most diverse backgrounds possible, whether French, Spanish or American. Imagine my astonishment when intellectual Slovenian choreographer Mala Kline turned up on stage in a small red dress, leading Ultima Vez through a large section of Spiegel. Her stage presence was always remarkable but in Kline’s year with Ultima Vez she has developed an astonishing physical side to her dancing which will hopefully turn up in some of her own projects (she is leaving Ultima Vez at the end of the Spiegel tour to return to her own work).


Kline brought a thoughtfulness and depth to her own performance which is sometimes missing in the physicality of long time Ultima Vez dancers. Kline never moves without thought behind the gesture.

But the most striking dancer in the company is the tiny Thi-Mai Nguyen who moves like a possessed fury throughout Spiegel.

The traditional Ultima Vez garb for women are ankle high boots and these strange mid-length dresses which hang tight on their figures but allow a full range of movement. The strength of their own performance – they regularly have to lift the men – is combined with a very feminine fragility.

The Ultima Vez women are thrown around the stage and against the floor like rag dolls. The violence is shocking and disturbing. But for all its explicity misogyny, Vandekeybus’s work is implicity feminist. Vandekeybus’s female protagonists strike back, giving as good as they get. They lift and even throw the men themselves. Vandekeybus’s subject matter is the psychological violence of relationships – the conflict between man and woman becomes physical. The usual subtext of the strained dialogues of modern love become corporeal. At the end of the day, this is a substantial contribution, moving women a long way from Sylphs in the Scottish moors or melancholy Willis.


Overall the costumes along with the men’s long hair and beards gave a strange feel as though one were walking into the late seventies or the middle eighties. As a whole the music took us on the same journey – it was kind of ambient stadium art rock – think Pink Floyd – complete with thundering sound effects.

A welcome change was a short excerpt from the middle of Spiegel where the men and the women came out in formal attire and went through the ritual of coupling. Against the formal look, some of the men ended up with other men, some of the women with other women – creating a cross-gendered stage.

In contrast to De Keersmaeker, Vandekeybus is not a choreographer of emotion and subtle divagations of feeling. His genius lies in his stagecraft and in ingenuity of movement. From just a bare stage, lights and a few props, he is able to create whole psychological worlds. At the end of the Spiegel, six meat hooks descend from above the stage. The dancers fill them in various poses of death, as a blood red back cloth waves its rich burgundy tone over the slaughterhouse atmosphere.

Any single section of Spiegel was astonishing and wonderful, whether the brick throwing or the stamping, whether the formal dance or the slaughterhouse scenes. But together one had the feeling of being overwhelmed.


The ninety minutes was too much. The volume of movment was at full almost all the time. By feeding us non-stop highlights of the violent Ultima Vez repertoire, the audience was quickly worn out. We had little chance to take a breath, no chance to recover between episodes. It was like nine portions of dessert, or of just the violent highlights from thriller films back to back.


In the end, Spiegel is like a Greatest Hits album for one of the iconic rock groups like Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin. The Greatest Hits are too much on their own – taken out of context, they lose much of their original significance.

More even than with music, Greatest Hits collections are always a problem for dance. Juri Grigorovich tried something similar with the Grigorovich suites, which provided cut down versions of Spartacus, Ivan the Terrible, The Stone Flower, Romeo and Juliette. Each was so much feebler than the original ballet, one always felt like one would prefer to see the original work with its full staging and not the highlights. Those endless ballet galas with the wretched Don Quixote pas de deux’s, gaudily interrupting a parade of dying swans and Indian hand maidens are built on the same principle and completely insupportable to a sentient being. Dance is an art and like other arts needs to be seen in proper emotional context – not turned into a silly and senseless highlight reel.


On the other hand, at Spiegel we were never bored. Vandekeybus has built a smoothly transitioning if somewhat overwhelming edifice. At the end, the audience went absolutely wild, in stark contrast to the muted reaction to Sister, the retrospective deconstruction of Rosas work. Volsktheater shook like the end of a rock concert for nearly ten minutes. Vandekeybus certainly knows how to play and thrill an audience. Spiegel is an exciting event.

Initially, I felt more critically towards Spiegel – it was just too much. But with a couple of days to live with my impressions, I feel much better about the experience. Vandekeybus’s repertoire, like any contemporary choreographer, is always in danger of disappearing. By presenting us with what he considers the choreographic highlights of his career, Vandekeyus is giving us a canonic piece to go into repertoire and lead future audiences further into his work.

As a choreographer of movement and invention, Vandekeybus’s technical innovations will perhaps be yet more important in the work of a future and yet unknown dancemaker.

Vandekeybus has unlocked the violence of the human spirit and body for European dance (some African dance captures that violence, albeit with a different vocabulary). Thanks to Vandekeybus, we now have a choreographic language for those extreme emotions, for open and hidden conflict between men and women. Vandekeybus has neatly condensed those innovations for us in Spiegel. It’s up to us and future generations what we want to do with that gift.

Still go to Spiegel prepared. My critical Polish dancer friend complained again after Spiegel (she is not easily satisfied), it’s too many orgasms in a row.

Photos Jean-Pierre Stoop, Wim Vandekeybus. Full cast: Laura Arís, Elena Fokina, Piotr Giro, Robert M. Hayden, Germán Jauregui, Allue, Jorge Jauregui Allue, Mala Kline, Thi-Mai Nguyen, Manuel Ronda.

ImPulsTanz: Sister – Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Vincent Dunoyer

July 16th, 2007 § 0

The first premiere of the ImPulsTanz season was a new co-creation from renowned Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and French performer and choreographer Vincent Dunoyer at the classic Volkstheater in Vienna.

Sister is Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker’s walk on the wild side of French deconstruction of dance. Her P.A.R.T.S. school graduates do occasionally get drawn into this Belesque (as in Jerome) world. But with the main company, Rosas, De Keersmaeker has largely avoided semiotic dance, in favour of evening length movement and music based productions.

Why would Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker choose to go in this direction now?

She likes to try new things. She is very good at everything she does. She may have wearied of having her new productions called old hat by that tiresome breed of dance theoreticians, focused on driving people out of the theater with concepts of authentic stillness and conceptual purity.

Anna Teresa-De-Keersmaeker-Sister
Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker’s entrance in Sister

Concretely, I believe Vincent Dunoyer approached De Keersmaeker with the concept. Dunoyer’s own pedigree includes stints with Ultima Vez and Raimund Hoghes, as well as an extended sejour as a Rosas dancer in the early nineties, so the two know one another well.

The underlying idea of Sister was that Dunoyer would speak to a bunch of Rosas ex-dancers and have them show him what they remembered of their time with Rosas and Anna Teresa in movement. He would then assemble these fragments into a coherent dance. Afterwards, Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker would work with the pieces he gave her to remake her own dance.

Frankly, not a bad idea on paper. How did it turn out in practice?

The ex-Rosas showed him some amazing steps.

Dunoyer put them together in a collage interspersed with short videos of the ex-Rosas dancers either dancing or singing.

The video screen filled up about half the stage. When it wasn’t serving as a white screen it also functioned lit up from the back showing either Dunoyer or De Keersmaeker in silhouette. The brief moments in silhouettte looked rather good.

The second and primary lighting set up was a series of flourescent lights on the right hand side of the stage. The flat side lighting was rather disappointing.

The site of the premiere, Volkstheater, is one of the historic theaters of Vienna. The neoclassical exterior hides a Baroque interior. For me, the dissonance between the stark minimalist staging and the ornate interior made it more difficult to enter the Dunoyer’s conceptualist world.

The first videos for some reason were handheld. Perhaps the intention was reality TV. The result was the impression of sloppy unfinished work. The exact opposite of Rosas polished and precision work.

When Dunoyer danced his collage, his movement was correct but uninspired. And rather in some kind of slow motion.

Until Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker herself appeared, the structure was unfocused and haphasard.

Her first entrance in silhouette was astonishing and powerful. She began in high heels and a thigh-length dress with a high front slit.

Anna De Keersmaeker solo

The first routine included a handstand. De Keermaker once again demonstrated astonishing form. Her legs are strong and slim, her stomach like a 20 year old. She still moves better than ninety percent of dancers in their twenties. Like Maya Plissetskaya, as a performer Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker is an incredible phenomenon.

For a while the power of her dancing and her presence grabbed the audience like the show had finally begun.

But then the flat lighting and absence of structure took its toll even on De Keersmaeker’s performance.

Sisters as a whole showed us that the parts are less than the sum. In the end, Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker is not primarily a choreographer of movement (i.e. George Balanchine). This is not to say De Keersmaeker’s language of movement is not expressive – it is.

But De Keersmaeker real genius lies in her sense of emotion, her theatricality, her musicality. There is nothing so wonderful as how she can build and rebuild small threads of movement through a performance into world changing poignancy, as she did in the astonishing Raga for the Rainy Season (ImPulsTanz 2005).

At a certain point in Sister, De Keersmaeker stops dancing and addresses the audience:

I don't remember.
Ich weiss nicht.
I know you from somewhere.
You changed, I changed.

Unfortunately her voice is not strong enough to fill the theater so it was difficult to hear the individual phrases. In the context, it was difficult to decide if they were trite or portentuous.

Finally the short show just fizzled out at the end.

Another video of a dancer repeating Rosas steps. At least the camera wasn’t bouncing this time. “Have fun,” he laughs at the end.

Dunoyer reappears on the left of the stage and waves his hand coyly. Lights out.

When the lights came up, a surprised audience collected themselves enough to clap half-heartedly. But I’ve never heard such unenthusiastic applause for a Rosas performance in my life. Normally, after a De Keersmaeker creation, let alone premiere, the theater almost roars like at the end of a rock concert. Not tonight.

Another dull deconstructed show, antithetical to dance.

The young Austrian woman I sat with – not a dancer but a long time theater and dance attendee – was even more categorical in German. “Fad,” she said.

Later, speaking with a young Polish dancer, I was surprised to hear in no uncertain terms that she hated the show and had never been more disappointed by any show. One must make allowances for the Polish tendency to emotional overstatement and living in the moment, but even so I’ve never heard or seen a De Keersmaeker creation which dancers themselves don’t like.

Still Sister was far, far better than the vogue of conceptualism (genre Philip Gehmacher). There was dance. There was video. There was economy of expression – Sister did not drag out for unnecessary hour, unlike much of the conceptualist work.

There are a few positive things to come out of this premiere. Sister provides a clear enough demonstration that a movement-based and established choreographer Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker can do deconstructionist and conceptual dance as well or better than those making a career of those genres.

Sister also conclusively demonstrates that no matter how talented the participants and creators, the paths of deconstruction and conceptual dance lead to nought but unhappy and diminishing dance audiences. Alas it is a self-reinforcing process, within a diminished public the more esoteric and obscure voices become ever louder.

I would take an evening of De Keersmaeker deconstruction over Vienna conceptualism. But I hope that is not a choice I’ll have to make often.

ImPulsTanz moves with the cycles in dance. And this is 2007 – not a particularly rich year – dance is wandering far from its base in movement and life.

Photos © ImPulsTanz and Mirjam Devriendt, 2007