Paradoxes Of The Dance Boom

Ballett International Tanz Aktuell 1 Jan 1997English

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During the eighties, Flanders appeared in no time at all   from the   proverbial nowhere, ending up in a fairly central position on the world contemporary dance map. This, at least, is what was suggested by the usually positively tinted, if not actually exultant reporting of 'the Flemish Wave' in the performing arts. But was there anything like a wave, a broad artistic movement with a small but much talked about forward line and a midfield that was less striking but ensured the follow-up? The fact that reference is constantly being made to the same four or five names in both Dutch-language and other publications should make us sceptical about using the word 'wave.'
The ever-repeated basic story is gradually becoming sufficiently familiar. First there was Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, who soon acquired world wide recognition with 'Fase' (1982) and 'Rosas danst Rosas' (1983). Then Jan Fabre made a name for himself with 'De macht der theaterlijke dwaasheden (The Power of Theatrical Madness/1984)' and, in 1987, 'The Dance Sections'. Also in 1987, Wim Vandekeybus struck a mass international dance audience dumb with 'What The Body Does Not Remember.' And recently there has been the growing success of the work of Alain Platel, whose piece 'Bernadetje (1996)' was received with obvious enthusiasm abroad Four names, though with a little good will one might also add to this list that of Meg Stuart, a New York choreographer working in Brussels.
Among foreign dance critics, as in the programmes of international festivals, one does not usually reach any further than these five. But these five names are also prominent in Flemish criticism too, in both qualitative and quantitative terms. Not only is considerably less printing inkt spent on the work of lesser lights like Marc Vanrunxt, Karin Vyncke and Alexander Baervoets but in reviews of their productions artistic comparisons with the internationally hallowed 'Flemish Five' are the order of the day. This midfield is gauged by criteria derived from the work of de Keersmaeker and Fabre, which is obviously often to its detriment. But that is not the most important point here. In the light of the still frequently used expression, the 'Flemish Dance Wave', what is decisive here is the clear fact that the midfield turns out to be fairly small: all in all it, too, comes down to four or five names. What's more, it includes for the most part choreographers who have already been active for several years, in Vanrunxt's case more than a decade. In the eyes of Flemish and Dutch dance critics they are on the periphery of Flemish contemporary dance precisely because of their lesser international status, whereas beyond those circles they are hardly mentioned as belonging to the 'Flemish Dance Wave'.
This brings the first paradox into view. Discourse on the 'Flemish Dance Wave' not only ignores the relatively limited size of the phenomenon this label is judged to refer to. After all, Flemish performing arts still comprises more theatre than dance companies. But it is mainly when it equates the 'Flemish Dance Wave', usually implicitly, with that handful of contemporary choreographers who have made an international breakthrough, that this discourse becomes really paradoxical.  Non-Dutch-speaking critics and texts in festival- and other programmes suggest, by using the expression the 'Flemish Dance Wave' that there exists a lively and variegated contemporary dance scene. At the same time they again and again canonise those same four or five names. Flemish critics, for that matter just like the policy-makers in Flemish contemporary dance, also adopt this canon and thereby confirm, 'in their own country,' that a choreographer can only really be part of the heralded 'Flemish dance wave' to the extent that they are successful outside Flanders. In short, the 'Flemish Dance Wave' was and is being created, and possibly slated, not so much in Flanders as abroad. 


We mentioned the name Meg Stuart above, and this leads us to the next question: how Flemish was and is the so-called Flemish wave? Is there, in the creations of a de Keersmaeker, a Fabre or a Platel, a specific artistic identity that sometimes effortlessly accords with Flemish culture? Apart from the obvious question of whether one dare speak at all of a homogeneous Flemish cultural identity, it is striking that reporting on the choreographers mentioned not infrequently mixes up the characterisations of 'Flemish' and 'Belgian.' The confusion was particularly pronounced during the eighties. Many an article that opened with the epithet the 'Flemish Dance Wave' was two sentences later talking about Belgian choreographers. In short, dance critics, fairly thoughtlessly, used the words 'Belgium' and 'Flanders' indiscriminately.
It is by no means our intention to make a brief judgement on dance criticism in Flanders, the Netherlands, France and Germany. And in fact the compilers of festival brochures and other programmes are usually even less discriminating in their utterances on Flemish choreographers than the critics working for the daily and weekly press. Nevertheless, whichever way one looks at it, it is difficult to pass over the observation that, as a rule, journalistic views of 'the Flemish dance wave and their conspicuously stereotyped characterisations of the work of a de Keersmaeker or a Vandekeybus, do not indicate much reflectiveness. Individual performances and bodies of work are more often than not described in the same old terms. The critics ignore possible differences, overemphasise similarities, and in this way, sometimes explicitly, often implicitly, assemble a Flemish artistic identity in the field of contemporary dance. The fact that this essentialism is the consequence of a particular type of writing about dance is commonly missed by most writers themselves. Previous characterisations are unthinkingly repeated, and then repeated again, and so on - so that on reading through the countless reviews of, for example, Jan Fabre, you soon get the impression that they are written by some anonymous 'one.' 
We very much doubt whether Flemish contemporary dance has a more general artistic identity. Once again, this is primarily about written characterisations, discursive constructs. Their constant repetition results in a limited series of stereotyped identifications of the artistic zest of the 'Flemish Dance Wave.' But these identifications are not 'genuine' identities, they are actively custom-made. However, this conclusion does not diminish the fact that, from a fundamentally descriptive point of view some scenes in some productions, by Jan Fabre, Vandekeybus or Platel for example, do display certain mutual similarities. But, in order to point these out, it is by no means necessary to take the essentialist path or to assume the existence of a common artistic, let alone Flemish identity.
Observations on the subject of Flemish contemporary dance almost always ignore its limited scale despite the fact that this simple morphological fact had the greatest effect in the early years of the so-called Flemish wave. Young choreographers and play-makers both regularly went to see each other's work and had a great deal of mutual contact; this interaction definitely went beyond the familiar chatter over a pint. For example, the play-makers Josse de Pauw, Dirk Pauwels (from the once so promising Radeis collective) and Jan Lauwers (later known for his Needcompany), among others, worked for some time, together with the choreographers Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Michèle Anne de Mey, in the Schaamte artists' organisation. Probably even more important was the 'infection1 resulting from direct collaboration on productions. For instance, Wim Vandekeybus danced for Jan Fabre before he started work on his first independent choreography. Marc Vanrunxt was advisor on movement to this same Fabre while working on his own oeuvre. And independent choreographers soon emerged from Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's company, Rosas, who were otherwise not immediately counted as part of the 'Flemish Dance Wave:' Roxanne Huilmand, Nadine Ganase, and of course Michèle Anne de Mey. Such intensive social contacts saw to it that there was mutual influence between the choreographers and play-makers working in Flanders in the eighties. Traces of this can be found in the sometimes striking artistic similarities. However, their appearance can only with difficulty conceal the existence of no less striking differences between the artistic courses of people like Fabre and de Keersmaeker. And most of all, it is impossible for them to justify talk of anything like a shared, relatively homogeneous artistic identity. It was simply that during the eighties, in Flanders, the same sociological phenomenon of intensive group-forming occurred as that which, for example, typified the avant-garde visual arts movements in the past. A hard core of unorthodox iconoclasts bonded together in their resistance against 'the establishment.' This common attitude was translated into, on the one hand, mutual organisational and financial support, and on the other learning from each other's artistic approach by way of intensive interaction. Groupforming always resulted in the selective socialisation of the members, as every introduction to sociology tells us. Why would artists be an exception to this rule, and direct themselves rather towards something in the way of an aesthetic identity, which is anyway always constructed subsequently, and is therefore ad hoc! 



We have already alluded to the social relevance of the initially marginal status of Jan Fabre or Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker in the Flemish performing arts. In the eighties, Flanders was indeed the scene of a sometimes fierce battle between these newcomers and the artistic establishment, between the heterodox and the orthodox dance and theatre creators. At stake in this ; battle were first and foremost the available funds. For a long time, the protagonists of the 'Flemish Dance Wave' were only granted meagre subsidies by the Flemish authorities, in spite of their rapid international recognition. So the artists went abroad to seek funds: co-production funds from France, Holland and Germany helped the ‘Flemish Dance Wave' to gain momentum.
In the second place, the newcomers had to fight for the recognition of their right to exist, from the strictly artistic viewpoint, alongside the established institutions. In the dance sector, this was far from easy: neither the Flemish nor the broader Belgian tradition had produced forerunners to which the new creations could be linked. The artistic range of ballet set the tone and ever had a monopoly on defining the characteristics of legitimate professional theatre dance. In the beginning of the eighties, dance was simply synonymous with the productions of the only two large ballet troupes in Flanders, the Antwerp based Koninklijk Ballet van Vlaanderen and Maurice Béjart's Ballet du XXe siècle, which was connected to the Brussels opera house, La Monnaie.
During this decade, the young Flemish scene unanimously rebelled against prevailing norms in the performing arts. They considered classical ballet and, for that matter, traditional repertory theatre to be a negative point of reference. The reason why this heterodoxy was able to take so many different forms was precisely the absence of an indigenous (read: Flemish or Belgian) tradition in contemporary or 'post-modern' dance.  There was nothing or no one to dictate the rules apart from the shared abhorrence of an unthinking endorsement of ballet codes. In practice, this artistic freedom was given very specific interpretations. The way in which each of the handful of pioneers of the 'Flemish Dance Wave' assimilated the lessons of foreign examples was, in every respect, highly individual - yet another aspect of the paradoxical status of the expression discussed here.
By now, the choreographic merits of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Jan Fabre, Wim Vandekeybus and Alain Platel are seldom a point of contention. For years now, these Flemish forming artists have been showing their work on the most renowned festival stages and in major theatres all over the world. Meanwhile, the artistic or symbolic capital thus earned has also brought financial recognition from the Flemish government. The international distribution of the 'Flemish Dance Wave' was therefore a major factor in the domestic struggle for artistic recognition and against the monopoly of ballet which held sway until about the mid-eighties. This was again confirmation of a certain sociological law, of which Howard S. Becker gives the following concise formulation in his book 'Art Worlds (1982):' "Distribution has a crucial effect on reputations. What is not- distributed is not known and thus cannot be well thought of or have historical importance. The process is circular: what does not have a good reputation will not be distributed."
Within Flanders itself, a new circuit of originally marginal arts centres, which later became official, took on the local distribution of the work of innovative choreographers and theatre-makers. At the beginning of the decade the existing Flemish circuit of civic theatres and cultural centres showed very little interest in the theatre and dance of the newly emerging generation. The officially-recognised companies also closed their doors to the artistic avant-garde. This situation both stimulated and legitimized the steady development of an alternative distribution system in Flemish performing arts. 



This alternative distribution system brought in financial resources, provided organisational support, and created, in no time, a predominantly young audience for contemporary dance. The new arts centres as such also played a major role in breaking through the prevailing artistic orthodoxy. These centres soon engaged in an active search for the successors to Jan Fabre and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. Even these supporters cherished the belief that the internationally-acclaimed Flemish vanguard of performing artists was only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. This belief was indeed essentially a belief, an only rarely fulfilled hope of discovering new Flemish dance talent. In the meantime, throughout the eighties the organisational newcomers kept on pushing for the gradual recognition of the heterodox avant-garde as a professional art movement. In other words, the alternative distribution system created an aura of professionalism around a new category of choreographers and theatre makers. And that, too, was far from superfluous - because Jan Fabre, Alain Platel and Wim Vandekeybus were an easy and frequent target for accusations of amateurism. None of them had been professionally trained as a dancer, actor, director or choreographer. This probably made it easier for them to be unfavourably disposed, if not completely indifferent, to the prevailing dance and theatre conventions. But in their early years this was also a weak spot in their struggle for official recognition. The new professional distribution system gave them a form of protection on exactly this issue. Again, there was a relation with a symbolic transfer: young but professionally trained organisers mediated their professionalism in the direction of young and untrained artists.
Our historical overview of both the artistic and the organisational preconditions of the 'Flemish Dance Wave' does have a conclusion of the familiar 'all's well that ends well' kind. This is due to the Flemish government, who approved a new regulation for the performing arts in 1993. In broad outline, this gave official form to the changed power relations between the former artistic establishment and the newcomers of the eighties. A separate flow of subsidies was created for contemporary dance companies and for organisations which presented and produced contemporary dance, such as Klapstuk and de Beweeging. Most other alternative arts centres also saw their efforts finally rewarded. For a few years now there has even been an additional special form of recognition for a number of choreographers and play-makers: they were promoted to the role of 'Cultural Ambassadors Of Flanders.' This specific recognition from the government has been supplying some extra touring funds to, among others, the companies of Jan Fabre (Troubleyn) and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker (Rosas). But wisely, there has been no attempt to define what is so particularly Flemish about the work of Fabre or de Keersmaeker. De Keersmaeker for one does not fit in with any politically delineated group at all, not even from a purely institutional viewpoint. Although Rosas does get general subsidies from the Flemish Community, it is of course the house company of La Monnaie, one of the few remaining federal Belgian cultural institutions. We won't here address the question of whether or not 'Cultural Ambassadorship' was created by the Flemish Government to try and invest itself with greater international legitimacy, by co-opting internationally successful artists. A more interesting question is to ask what has been won in the struggle, now ended, for artistic and financial recognition from the Flemish government. Money, of course, and with it, organisational security for artists and arts centres. But this has not immediately brought many new artists to Flemish stages. The heroes of the eighties continue to set the artistic tone in what is the small world of contemporary dance in Flanders. In Flanders too, the internationally renowned 'Flemish Five' run the show, not least in dance criticism. They embody the new canon, and in many young eyes, they are in fact the new artistic establishment. Many signs point to the fact that, if it has ever existed, the 'Flemish Dance Wave' has flattend out for the time being. Klapstuk and Vooruit, in their unremitting search for young promising talent, have been investing mainly in foreign choreography. They have been complementing their initial international operation in the field of dissemination and distribution with equally international production and co-production activity. Over the last few years this has produced at least one major discovery: thanks to Klapstuk, Meg Stuart has been able to conquer international theatres. But whether or not these young hopefuls are to be counted as part of the 'Flemish wave,' no one can say for sure.