When an oeuvre is more than the sum of its parts

A miniature cultural sociology of the flemish performing arts in 2003

Pigment 1 Jan 2003English

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Contextual note

Thist text by Rudi Laermans was first published in the book ‘Pigment. Current trends in the performing arts in Flanders’. In the 1990 a new generation of Flemish performing artists took national and international theatres by storm. They did not feel much like committing patricide on their illustrious predecessors of the 1980s, but wet their own way. In this book, the reader follows the path taken by this gerenation. ‘Pigment’ is an adventurous travel guide in the land fo writers and actors, circus artists and performers’ collectives, musicians and amateurs. It leads the reader to run-down swimming pools and brand-new concert halls, to fairy-tale brothels and gastronomic roundabouts, to streets and squares.


The landscape of Flemish theatre and dance today makes a rather remarkable impression – it is even something of a unique sociological phenomenon. There are rich and poor institutions, large and small theatres, canonical companies and symbolic lightweights. There is nothing unusual about all that, and as in every social world the quantitative and qualitative differences are responsible for envy or jealousy and regularly produce frictions and clashes, not to mention open or underground forms of the defence of particular interests. But the unusual feature is that, in spite of all this, it is impossible in Flanders to draw a clear-cut dividing line between establishment and newcomers, centre and periphery. Large houses like KVS (Koninklijke Vlaamse Schouwburg; Royal Flemish Theatre) or Het Toneelhuis almost greedily absorb up-and-coming theatre talent. Rosas supports young choreographers via the non-profit institution Werkhuisproducties. Victoria and Beursschouwburg regularly scrutinize their own impact in the light of new developments. Fresh graduates knock on the door of Stuk (Leuven) or Vooruit (Ghent), whether they have a project subsidy or not. Alain Platel gives other choreographers an opportunity with Les Ballets C de la B. There is no shortage of examples. And the conclusion is that the performing arts in Flanders are not immediately caught up in a bitter struggle between pretenders to the throne and those who occupy it.

The pioneers of ‘the new Flemish wave’ of the 1980s have been the official residents of the centre for more than a decade, partly thanks to the 1993 resolution on the performing arts. So most of them do not behave like quasi-monarchs with their own court and a territory that has to be fiercely defended against possible intruders. What is alive in the entire landscape of Flemish theatre and dance is a strikingly strong awareness of the double danger of organizational institutionalization and artistic routinization. That anti-institutionalism that is so difficult to explain, being both very diffuse and extremely effective at the same time, seems to be the hallmark par excellence of the current Flemish theatre and dance scene. That is in line with notably low thresholds in the social intercourse between the established companies and the newcomers, as much as, for example, between artists, critics and the core public. Relations at work are also egalitarian and democratic in most of the companies – though perhaps cooperative might be a better word. The director or choreographer is not an omniscient master, but a coach who bears the final artistic responsibility.

An open climate of discussion has its disadvantages too. Mutual criticism is a possibility, nay, a necessity – but a lot remains unsaid, simply because consultation or cooperation implies dependence, in the past and above all in an unknown future, and entails a lack of critical distance at times. Differences in power certainly play a part here, albeit in a more subtle and less visible way than in a cultural field with a clear-cut dividing line between an establishment engaged in self-defence and a periphery on the offensive. That is what makes it so difficult for newcomers to position themselves in Flanders: they lack strong symbolic fathers and mothers who deliberately stifle their artistic potential. They are more likely to be cuddled to death, because they receive attention from established institutions, but also from the regular press and the advisory committees to the Flemish cultural government. There is a manifest concern for entrance and promotion opportunities, and most thinking, discussion and decision-making is done with a view to a simultaneously flexible and sustainable Flemish theatre and dance landscape, much less in terms of international export or safe investments. A major factor is the growth of the Flemish cultural budget, which is why it may be a temporary situation, even though it has been going on now for a decade.

As a result of the anti-institutional consensus, Flanders has no stark artistic polarization between the generation of the Eighties and their successors. All the same, although both generations share the same attitude, it is interpreted in very different ways, but without many conflicts or any struggle for legitimacy. The differences are primarily focused on how a particular artistic practice is described, put into practice, and situated vis-à-vis other cultural practices. They are not isolated from the more general shift from a modern to a postmodern culture, from a Modernist to a Postmodernist interpretation of what was once Art with a capital A. These general preoccupations have not found deep roots in Flanders, which is why I shall immediately clear them away and limit myself to noting a few striking differences between the generations of ‘the Eighties’ and ‘the Nineties’. (From here on the inverted commas will be dropped and readers are asked to supply them for themselves.) I shall not mention any names after this, but for the sake of argument my generation of the Eighties consists of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker (Rosas), Jan Lauwers (Needcompany), Lucas Vandervost (De Tijd) and Luc Perceval (Toneelhuis); my generation of the Nineties comprises Olympique Dramatique, Haute Coiffure, Benjamin Verdonck, De Zweep, De Queeste, Heine Avdal, Amgod, Charlotte Vanden Eynde, Kris Verdonck and Paulina Buelens. This classification in terms of ideal types is far from comprehensive, and there are several transitional figures and companies, such as Meg Stuart (Damaged Goods), Dito’dito, and of course Stan.


In artistic terms, the spirit of anti-institutionalism appears among the generation of the Eighties in the form of a striking combination of taking further and renewing their own theatre or dance idiom and the craftsmanship that they have in the meantime built up. Sometimes this is a gradual process, but it is just as common to find proverbial breakthroughs, performances in which a new step is taken in a remarkable way. Risks are not avoided, and occasionally the generation of the Eighties still comes up with mediocre or simply bad productions. But thematically and stylistically these also bear the hallmark of their maker. That is the decisive point: the generation of the Eighties consists of authors who are deliberately building up an oeuvre. They do not want to become imprisoned in it, hence their constant search for something new, but every new production is always an affirmation of a romantic artistry. Artists have something to say, they have a personal vision (that is their authorship), and, performance after performance, they search for the appropriate formal means to flesh that out. That trajectory creates the oeuvre.

Content plus form, culminating in a strong dramatic or choreographic power of expression combined with a unique signature: that is what the generation of the Eighties is after. At the same time, practically every one of their performances shows a strong awareness of theatre or dance, opera or ‘the performing arts in general’ as specific media. Their boundaries are meticulously explored and shifted, above all in the direction of ‘the expressive’. That is regularly done with a view to maximal expression, without the kind of transgressions that by now are included under the label of performance. Recognition of the medium-specific identity of theatre or dance can also be seen in the strong awareness of tradition of the generation of the Eighties. Classical repertoire (Shakespeare) is a touchstone for their own artistic vision, combined with the strict observance of a minimum of professionalism on the part of actors and dancers. A text is not mumbled inaudibly unless that is dramaturgically called for; a movement is not danced in a sloppy fashion unless the choreographer specifically asks for it.

The generation of the Eighties forms the canonical centre of the Flemish performing arts, a position that the government and critics have consolidated in the last decade, and that has also received international confirmation. They are therefore heavyweights in institutional terms – which is just as true of the arts centres that were started up in the 1980s. An effective organizational institutionalization is in line with the steady growth in subsidies and infrastructure, even though on a very modest scale by comparison with examples abroad. Most of the generation of the Eighties use the surplus resources to improve the working conditions of the artistic staff, and above all to further highlight their own artistic trajectory. In most cases that is characterized by a fear of repeating themselves, i.e. of producing work which, in spite of its excellence, consists of variations on a recognized artistic identity. In terms of organization they have by now become an institute, but in artistic terms that is not at all what they want in so far as institutionalization means routinization and complacency, self-affirmation and narcissism. It may look paradoxical, but the practice of the artists themselves removes the apparent incoherence in the combination of organizational institutionalization with artistic anti-institutionalism: the oeuvre is not yet complete, the artist-author still has to produce his or her definitive work.


While most of the generation of the Eighties subscribe, roughly speaking, to the modern concept of art, the majority of the generation of the Nineties adhere to an artistic practice that – however vague and inadequate it may be – can be characterized as ‘post-artistic’. The generation of the Nineties are not authors who oscillate between gradual stages and wild leaps to build up a coherent theatre or dance oeuvre. They simply make performance after performance, they parade from project to project, they concentrate on the present without looking around them or into the future very much. They seem to be not very interested, if at all, in a consistent artistic identity, and are guided rather by the possibility of working alone or with others, and today rather than tomorrow, on a specific project. If they are given the chance to do so, they often complete that project with a remarkable degree of enthusiasm and dedication. They do not complain that the stage is too small or too large, they are flexible and pragmatic, they tailor their concept if necessary to suit the given work or theatre conditions. That makes them interesting partners for arts centres, especially the smaller ones, and for other organizations. The generation of the Nineties consists of context players who are readily able to adapt personal ideas and external questions to meet specific limiting conditions, without losing any integrity or reflexivity in the process. They are not strategists but tacticians, and they excel in the art of appropriation: they are latter-day heirs of Situationism, but usually minus the revolutionary utopianism of that avant-garde movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Project, concept, idea – performance after piece after production, most of the generation of the Nineties have no interest at all in developing a more general vision. They elaborate ideas, often in a highly consistent and rigorous way, but at the same time in response to the context. They are therefore not concerned with the formulation of a theatre or dance idiom of their own, a personal vocabulary or an individual approach to theatre or dance. ‘Essayism’ is perhaps the most appropriate word to characterize the artistic practice of the quintessential member of the Nineties generation. He or she does not worry about whether the performance is Art with a capital A or not, what matters is the creation of an interesting experience machine, an artefact that ‘is well put together’ and manages to reach the audience. The generation of the Nineties is a generation of makers and doers, in the most literal sense of the word: they often seem to resemble artistic engineers rather than artists pur sang. The work they produce is almost always aimed at an audience without being vulgar. It is often addressed to ‘the man-in- the-street’ from an honest democratic persuasion. That explains the numerous street and location projects in which the boundary between artistic and social work is often blurred, if not becoming completely hybrid. And if they simply work in an artistic setting, that usually results in performances that exploit the force of sentiment without much embarrassment. The generation of the Nineties does not make work for patented connoisseurs of the arts, it targets that strange sensitivity to human issues that often comes across as inhuman. Its humanism and commitment are unmistakable, but in most cases unformulated: the generation of the Nineties does not argue, it infiltrates the body.

For the preceding generation there is still a canon, both a historical one and a professional one; the generation of the Nineties, on the other hand, set themselves against it in the first place with their momentaneous ‘self ’. That is, as it is for the literary essayist, the source and touchstone of every activity. That is why they often write their texts themselves, even though texts written by others – occasionally even by classical authors – may be used also, but fragmented and disfigured, reduced or expanded, depending on the concept used. Diction is of hardly any importance, dialect is a usable form too, as are clumsiness and bleating, figuratively coming a cropper and literally bungling (but then playing at bungling, at times even very carefully contrived bungling). In more dance-centred performances that is reflected in a high degree of informality, an often dramatically exaggerated ‘incapacity’ – or ‘unwillingness’ – in the movements executed. That does have a model: not Art with a capital A, but simply soap opera.

The generation of the Nineties is not out to deliberately or critically break down the boundary between what used to be seen as high and low culture, art and kitsch. It is its manifest indifference towards that persistent institutionalized boundary that is typical, like the both reflexive and naïve treatment of the difference between performing and visual arts. Its artistic practice is characterized by that easy – but not complacent – assembly of culturally heterogeneous genres or disciplines. The generation of the Eighties makes visual performing art, the generation of the Nineties, on the contrary, shows a remarkable lack of concern for the history of art and pays little or no attention to the differences between installations and performances, video art and live art. It makes neither theatre nor dance nor performing art in general, but simply explores the different forms of theatricality within our culture. Its practice is of the order of the theatrical in general, which is why it is diffcult to pin down within the existing definitions and notions. Is it still art? Most of the time not Art with a capital A, that much is certain, but at any rate the making and presentation of it draws parasitically on the notion of modern art. The generation of the Nineties needs the generation of the Eighties – but the reverse, of course, is just as true.