The Flemish wave: myth and reality

Carnet 1 Jan 1999English

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In the 1980s Flanders suddenly showed up on the map of international contemporary dance. At least this was suggested by reports on the 'Flemish wave', most of which were positive, even jubilant. But is the wave analogy indeed fitting? Can we indeed speak of a broader artistic movement with a smaller attention-getting vanguard at its crest and a less conspicuous midfield to ensure succession?

By now, the basic story is pretty well known. First there was Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, who quickly earned worldwide recognition with Fuse (1982) and Rosas danst Rosas (1983). Then Jan Fabre made a name for himself with De macht der theaterlijke dwaasheden (1984), and a few years later, De Danssecties (1987). In 1987 another debutant, Wim Vandekeybus, left a large audience of international dance enthusiasts wordless with wonder at his What the Body does not Remember. And as of late there has been growing acclaim for the oeuvre of Alain Platel, whose performance Bernadetje (1996) met with great enthusiasm abroad. Four names, and with any leeway, we can add to this short list Meg Stuart, the choreographer from New York who now works in Brussels.
But these five are usually about as far as Flemish and foreign dance critics and foreign festival brochures ever get. Considerably less newspaper ink is shed over the work of lesser gods like Marc Vanrunxt, Karin Vyncke, Bert Van Gorp and Alexander Baervoets. And on top of that, in critiques of their work they are constantly compared to the internationally consecrated 'Flemish Five'. The so-called midfield of Flemish dance is measured against the work of De Keersmaeker or Fabre, with all the consequences this entails. But this is not our point. What interests us is that, upon closer examination, this midfield is obviously quite small: all in all, we're only talking about three to five names. All of them are choreographers with several years' experience, and more than a decade in Vanrunxt's case. Flemish and, to some extent, Dutch dance critics assign this group to the periphery of Flemish contemporary dance. Outside Dutch-speaking areas they are hardly even mentioned as belonging to the Flemish dance wave.
Now we arrive at the first paradox: the discourse on the Flemish dance wave suggests the existence of a vital and highly diversified dance domain, while in truth it repeatedly consecrates the same four or five names. Flemish dance critics, policymakers too, have adopted this canon and as such perpetuate the notion 'in their own country' that a choreographer is only truly part of the Flemish dance wave to the extent that he or she enjoys success outside Flanders. In short, the making - and, possibly, breaking - of the Flemish dance wave is an activity that goes on not so much in Flanders as abroad.  

A couple of paragraphs back we mentioned the name Meg Stuart, which brings us to the question of: how Flemish is the Flemish dance wave? Stuart, an American, is not the only stranger in our midst. Most Flemish - as in Dutch-speaking choreographers work with foreign dancers. And still, creations by De Keersmaeker, Fabre and Platel are assigned a regional identity with remarkable regularity. Does this mean their productions contain a specific artistic identity that is perfectly in step with the Flemish culture? To disregard for now the patent question of whether a homogeneous Flemish cultural identity even exists, it is striking to note the ambivalence with which dance critics treat the matter. They frequently use the designations 'Flemish' and 'Belgian' interchangeably, for instance.
Furthermore, we cannot but conclude that journalistic observations about the Flemish dance wave and its representatives often exhibit a lack of deliberation. Individual performances and entire oeuvres are often described in the same terms. Critics ignore possible differences, overemphasise similarities, and in doing so, explicitly or otherwise, create a Flemish artistic identity within contemporary dance. A few of the more ubiquitous catchwords concern visual qualities. The work of Flemish dance makers is said to distinguish itself through 'great visual power' or 'a strongly visual character'. 

During the eighties Flanders was the theatre of what at times was fierce fighting between artistic newcomers and the established order. As ever, the bone of contention was available financial means. Despite a rapid ascent into the realm of international recognition, the protagonists of the Flemish wave were allotted meagre subsidies, and ventured across borders in search of much-needed supplemental funding: coproduction monies from France, the Netherlands and Germany helped the Flemish wave achieve its present glory.
In the second place, the innovators were forced to assert their very artistic right to existence vis-à-vis the established institutions. Within the dance sector this was far from easy; there was no way to tie into the work of their predecessors, either on a Flemish or a Belgian level. In Flanders in the early 1980s it was the movement idiom of ballet that set the tone. In other words, 'artistically sound' dance was synonymous with the work of the Koninklijk Ballet van Vlaanderen (Royal Flemish Ballet), on the one hand and the productions of Maurice Béjart's Ballet of the XXth Century on the other.
In the 1980s, young Flemish artists united in opposition to the dogmas within the performing arts. They regarded classical ballet, and traditional repertory theatre, as negative benchmarks. It was specifically the absence of an indigenous - Flemish or Belgian - tradition in contemporary or 'postmodern' dance that enabled the heterodoxy to assume such diverse forms. People were united by nothing, by no one, save a shared aversion to the unthinking endorsement of the codes in the ballet world. This artistic freedom was given very specific interpretation by the pioneers of the Flemish wave, who went boldly forth and assimilated the lessons of foreign examples. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, for instance, acquired a taste for minimal dance a la Lucinda Childs during her study in 1981 at the Tish School of the Arts in New York. She promptly gave the style a substantial twist in Fase, and even more so in Rosas danst Rosas: this performance combined repetitive patterns with movement material derived from everyday gestures, an unprecedented approach. Conversely, in her next production, Elena's Aria (1984), De Keersmaeker stuck noticeably close to the German Tanztheater of Pina Bausch. Jan Fabre strode into the public eye with his highly idiosyncratic appropriation of performance art. His crucial move consisted of confronting the underlying rules of a genre that flourished primarily within the closed circuit of the visual arts with the axioms of the performing arts. In De Danssecties, on the other hand, we can detect the influence of the early work of William Forsythe. This production can additionally be read as a razorsharp deconstruction of the ballet tradition against which Flemish innovators united in opposition in the 1980s. In no way do we mean to suggest that choreographers like De Keersmaeker or Fabre enjoyed easy victory in Flanders simply by importing foreign patterns that were new to us. Our point is more that the worldwide success of these Flemish choreographers is due to their individual appropriation of internationally recognisable dance codes.  

At present, the choreographic merits of De Keersmaeker, Fabre, Vandekeybus and Platel are seldom questioned. The Flemish have shown their work on the world's most renowned stages for years now, earning great artistic or symbolic wealth in the process. And the Flemish government eventually came round and rewarded these artists financially. The international distribution of the Flemish dance wave was, therefore, a very important factor in the struggle for artistic recognition at home.
Within Flanders itself the 1980s marked the birth of a new circuit of arts centres which initially operated in the margin and later received official recognition. These centres were responsible for the national distribution of the work of choreographic and theatrical innovators. This alternative distribution system in turn drew financial means, provided organisational support and, within a short time, created a predominantly young contemporary dance public. The new arts centres, therefore, had an important part in breaking through the prevailing artistic orthodoxy. They institutionalised the Flemish wave - an expression we will use for lack of better. In other words, they created an aura of professionalism around a new category of choreographers and theatre makers. A boon for artists such as Jan Fabre, Alain Platel and Wim Vandekeybus, who were regularly accused of amateurism, for none of them had had professional training in dance, acting, directing or choreography. Perhaps this also explains their indifference or dismissive attitude towards the dance and drama conventions of the day. 

Our historical account of the artistic and organisational conditions that made the so-called Flemish dance wave possible does indeed have an 'all's well that ends well' outcome. The Flemish government deserves the bulk of the credit here for approving a new performing arts regulation in 1993. Basically, it officially recognised the change in the balance of power between the earlier 'establishment' and the innovators. A separate subsidy channel was created for contemporary dance companies as well as the organisations that hosted and produced them, such as the festivals Klapstuk (Louvain) and De Beweeging (Antwerp). Most of the other (once considered alternative) arts centres also saw their efforts rewarded in policy form. Recently, some choreographers and theatre makers were the recipients of another, rather special, form of recognition: the conferral of Flemish Cultural Ambassadorship. This specific government recognition - or is 'cultural expropriation by the government' more appropriate? - has translated into extra travel funds for the companies of Jan Fabre and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, among others. The question of what exactly makes their work so quintessentially Flemish was wisely left alone. De Keersmaeker for one occupies contradictory political posts out of purely institutional motives. While enjoying structural subsidies from the Flemish Community, Rosas, her company, is also the resident company of the Théâtre Royal de La Monnaie, one of the few remaining federal Belgian cultural institutions. On top of that, the choreographer herself was recently raised to the rank of nobility by the Belgian Crown. The Flemish De Keersmaeker as a baroness: the ultimate symbol that 'Belgitude' is alive and well?
The question is, what exactly are the spoils of this battle for artistic and financial recognition? Money, indeed, and along with it organisational security for artists and arts centres. But so far, not very many fresh faces on Flemish stages. The heroes and heroines of the eighties have retained this function in the nineties in what, all things considered, is the rather compact world of contemporary dance. As we observed earlier, the internationally renowned 'Flemish Five' run the show at home in Flanders too, and not in the least in the world of dance criticism. Today they embody the new canon, and in many younger eyes it is they who constitute the new artistic establishment.
There are multiple indications that the Flemish wave, insofar as it ever actually existed, has subsided for the time being. Flemish organisations with a contemporary dance orientation arrived at this conclusion some time ago - which helps explain, for instance, why the American choreographer Meg Stuart would help color in the Flemish dance scene these past years. Is she an element of the Flemish wave or not? No one can answer that question with certainty. Perhaps it doesn't really matter anyway. 


This article is an adapted, shortened version of the one appearing in Ons Erfdeel 41, no. 3 (1998): 329-339, a publication of the Flemish-Dutch foundation Ons Erfdeel, Murissonstraat 260, B 8930 Rekkem, Belgium. 0 10