Where is dance now and where will it go?

Notes on Philipp Gehmacher’s walk + talk series at the Kaaistudio’s in Brussels

Corpus 10 Oct 2011English

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Exactly three years after a first project at Tanzquartier Wien, the Austrian choreographer Philipp Gehmacher organized a new series walk + talk at the Kaaistudio’s in Brussels (15-19 March 2011). Driven by the question where one’s “own” movement language comes from, he invited himself and nine colleagues to walk and talk on stage, that is to show their movement language and simultaneously speak about the inspirational sources, intuitions, practices and processes of decision-making that afford it. Choreographers who are equally dancers of their own work, reflected from an internal perspective on their practice and this in form familiar to them, namely a short solo performance – be it in a “stripped” space, without décor, music or props as hold or “bag of tricks”. Gehmacher writes in the programme sheet: “I am still interested in artists who manage to put their bodies into their ideas of movement, and create movement, knowing that this is based on an understanding, not just of time and space, but also of concepts of and about physical human (and maybe non-human) existence. My understanding of what movement is should be visible in the way I decide to be when I dance. And then it is about this shaping, about articulation, the formalising, yielding content. Among many other things.”

During five consecutive nights, each time two makers presented their work, with an intermission in between. Some choreographers had already participated three years ago and created in Brussels a new walk + talk (Philipp Gehmacher, Rémy Héritier, Anne Juren, Meg Stuart). Then there were a younger generation from Brussels (Pieter Ampe, Eleanor Bauer, Daniel Linehan), as well as more experienced makers in whose practice a paradigm of research and collaboration plays a central role (Mette Ingvartsen, Martin Nachbar, Chrysa Parkinson).(1) Artists who take the word, the language of making, the paradox of skilled vulnerability, the self-portrait: all these themes were at stake, yet as a whole this second series walk + talk removed itself somewhat from Gehmacher’s critical expressionism.(2) The urgency of speaking out and the intimacy of a look behind the scenes was placed in line with a broader quest for authenticity upon which dance’s imaginary realm thrives and the possible forms and meanings it can take on today – with embodiment and embeddedness as keywords. In walk + talk Gehmacher and co were in a sense taking stock guided by the following question: “Where will dance go and where is it now? What is choreographed physicality at the present time, and what will it be in the near future?”




With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, and everything conceals something else.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Together with visual artist Alexander Schellow, Philipp Gehmacher had reorganized the whole of the Kaaistudio’s in a drastic yet subtle scenography. In the bar, superfluous objects had been removed and the usual black tables yielded to white ones; in the adjoining concert studio stood a white wall and the lighting had been changed – all of this in view of an open sense of space. Next to video documentation of the first walk + talk series, hidden in corner stood a monitor which transmitted in real time the activity on stage – rehearsals as well as performances. Another view of the theatre was possible through the windows in the corridor or via two live video projections in the courtyard, yet another mediated, fragmented gaze guided by two cameras placed on stage – these different viewing options were separated carefully via a nontransparent film, glued onto the veranda’s window pane. As a spectator, one didn’t enter the theatre via the usual door, but through this “prepared” space and over the empty stage to the risers, where for the occasion grey cushions were placed on a bare wooden floor, as an extension of the wooden dance floor in which the physical traces of myriad performances are tangible.

For Schellow a space is never just an empty container, but a landscape in which people move and which they also shape through their actions, observations and memories: “Space is not a construction, but an event. Space takes place, in relation to the people who make use of it.” This also holds for the theatre, including the black box, which is often regarded as a generic space. The scenography of walk + talk honed the spectator’s attention and highlighted the relational character of the space, which would accumulate many more inscriptions and connections throughout the week. At the start of the performances the window blinds were lowered, as if to underscore once more the subtle yet binding contract with the viewer. It then shouldn’t come as a surprise that the two choreographers on the opening night, Pieter Ampe and Martin Nachbar, in their walk + talk immediately brought up the question how they could let the world enter this closed universe.

While everyone entered and took their seats, Pieter Ampe was already on stage, waiting, charged with the inconvenient task of having to make the first gesture. He put on a costume for the performance and placed his other clothes like a body on the stage, to which would be added later on another paper body, as a memory aid and score. With voice and body Ampe evoked the “dance” of a beggar succumbing to gravity somewhere in the streets of Barcelona, a dance he had documented while watching from a terrace. Or he dragged props in and got himself stuck in a series of clumsy preparations to a grand gesture that didn’t come, while the fresh air entered the space through the open door to the storage room. Thus accumulated the first gestures and traces, and Ampe’s walk + talk unfolded itself via fragments, abrupt changes and unexpected openings. A story about getting lost in the metro led him across the stage, made him get off twice in the wrong station to eventually end up in front of the camera that projected his adventures to the courtyard of the Kaaistudio’s – all this according to the principle of “roaming”, a ramble embracing theatre and world outside, mental spaces and movement material in one diffuse gesture.

At the end of the first evening, Martin Nachbar added a postscript to his walk + talk, in which he had attempted to unfold a dance for the future through reflection on his way of working – questions and openings, first and foremost for himself. Yet, how could he, in light of the events in Japan, place his performance back in the world? He re-enacted a catastrophe scene from his Verdeckte Ermittlung (2004), urged the spectators to be silent so he could better listen to the voices coming from outside trying to sound the catastrophe’s extent, and eventually witnessed a cloud of soot and dust settle in the theatre: “Now the stage is covered with a thin layer of questions.”




Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today – that they are stored with other meanings, with other memories, and they have contracted so many famous marriages in the past. (…) Nowadays it is easy enough to invent new words – they spring to the lips whenever we see a new sight or feel a new sensation – but we cannot use them because the English language is old. (…) How can we combine the old words in new orders so that they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth?”

Virginia Woolf, Words fail me


Accompanied by a peculiar sign language, Rémy Héritier lent his voice to a radio broadcast of Virginia Woolf from 1937. It was one of the many “documents” that entangled themselves with his movements and turned his dance into a hybrid “site”, creating a specific geography on stage: “Sites where we can stand in, or even take position, concretely and poetically.” In that dialectical vibration, Héritier embodied furthermore memories of dances by Gehmacher, Nachbar and himself; a snatch of a speech by Margaret Thatcher penetrated coincidentally the rehearsal space and hence the choreography; and he compared the theatre space with a photograph of the university of Moscow. Moving blindly through the space or turning his back on the stage while standing in a corner, Héritier discussed this way of working: “Gathering data, geographies, personal and collective memories that make possible new associations, connections, distinctions, which set new conditions for being present, for being able to witness a possible event to be. Being present is located in the space, in a volume in between what I want to get and what I really get, between the project and the other.”

Dance may very well be a transient form of art, some memories and traces piling up in the body are resistant. As a choreographer, Martin Nachbar is known for his re-enactments of Dore Hoyer’s Affectos Humanos (1962), a series of expressionist dances of which he is the living archive and official treasurer. In his walk + talk he distanced himself from an unequivocal identification – imposed on him by an army of dance scholars – with this patch of dance history and made clear that many more dances and histories inhabit his body. Perhaps historical research consists for a good deal of mapping out his personal history and blind spots. In working on Repeater – dance piece with father (2007), Nachbar discovered a line of tension that connects his thumbs via the shoulders, a habit inherited from his father: “which makes my body the archive of my father’s habits.” How this habit has inscribed itself still eludes him.

Precisely in embracing blindness as well as historical consciousness resides a critical component in the expressionism of the choreographers who participated in walk + talk. Their bodies don’t host a universal or organic truth and exactly therefore contain also the promise of transformation and a future. Anne Juren evoked her re-enactment of Marina Abramovic’ performance Freeing the body (1976), in which the latter danced for eight hours until she collapsed. After fifteen minutes it became obvious to Juren that she needed a strategy to sustain it during several hours; approaching the body literally as a construct in which she could focus her attention on steady transformation turned out to be an apt one. In this seemingly technical detail, the generation gap with Abramovic shows itself: for Juren emancipation consists in acknowledging and actively exploring the body’s discursive materiality.

The authenticity of a movement language depends on the singularity of the person, of the dancer as a living archive. Near the end of his walk + talk, Philipp Gehmacher staged himself as a melancholy old man, who realizes he is still occupied with the same questions – how to say “I” on stage and at once reaching beyond this? The arbitrary choreographic contract and the idiosyncratic gesture are for Gehmacher a perpetual negotiation with the familiar pathways of culture, a context without which one can actually not arrive at speaking or meaning. Yet how can a body shed an excess of history and superficial meanings? With closed eyes, Gehmacher posed extendedly like a Christ figure close to the audience, to “make himself available for the spectator, for being looked at.” In the small space of the Kaaistudio’s this gesture reverberated all too loudly, it became nearly unbearable in its pathos. Gehmacher does like extremes, but he also keeps searching for the possibility of abstraction in a symbolic or totem-like movement language. Wouldn’t it after all be possible to simply regard the body as a set of lines and circles, “something like a modernist game”?

In turn, Meg Stuart sought the border to abstraction in the erasure of emotions (“ghosting”) and the steady repetition and transformation of personal gestures – “When does transformation become a ritual?” She is interested in people and how they move – in walk + talk her source material was her own body, which made Stuart hark back to the many private sessions in front of the mirror since her adolescence, realizing time and again: “This is it.” Informally yet with utmost precision, Stuart balanced on the thin line between her own tics and habits and the beginning of a dance, moved through the myriad energies and memories present in the space, and in between smuggled some anecdotes aboard, like the one about great jazz musicians who never discuss but are able to “just play”.

 A vulnerable game this, which in its informal character reminded of the origin of expression “walk and talk”, which refers to the specific studio practice of dancers who “mark” their material, quickly going through the motions without fully embodying it and sometimes saying the cues aloud. Elsewhere Stuart said about this: “I became fascinated by ‘marking’, not the aesthetics of it, but the state it produced. When dancers are asked to mark they pass through a sequence of learned movement but keep the intensity or performance punch out of it, to save their energy for the real thing. This reduced physicality – dancers half-heartedly going through the motions – made me curious. How is it possible to detach oneself so easily from one’s dancing?”(3)




By writing about myself in the first person, I had smothered myself and made myself invisible, had made it impossible for me to find the thing I was looking for. I needed to separate myself from myself, to step back and carve out some space between myself and my subject (which was myself).”

Paul Auster, Invisible


After a long opening dance in silence and with closed eyes, Martin Nachbar stated: “A gesture is an event between movement and language.” And after a short break he pointed out a conflict concerning his walk + talk: “The thing is: I decided to not speak on stage any longer. Using language seemed to be such an easy way out of, you know… choreographic problems, dance questions.” For Nachbar the lecture-demonstration is a familiar format, the use of language in his performances evident and by now also an obstacle, because unambiguity sits regularly in the way. Shortly before, Pieter Ampe had addressed the uncomplicated desire to dance, after having suspended it during his education and “having only explored the world of slapstick” in his first performances. Eleanor Bauer claimed at the outset that for her to dancing or speaking never stuck a taboo, but then later on she also had to admit to not quite know how ideas and material exactly sit together in her work.

Now that developing one’s own movement language is hardly of interest anymore to young choreographers, it becomes clear what this generation of post-conceptual dance makers struggles with: how to embody discourse and ideas in a complex way? That is moreover a problem of our times: the superficial consumption of knowledge in our information society is at odds with the slow development of an artistic body of work, as well as with embodiment and situatedness as central aspects in dance’s production of meaning. And what to think in this connection of the fashionable term “artistic research”?

This is it.” In Eleanor Bauer’s version it concerned a self-portrait of a maker who embraces “ADD as method”, has a hundred and one ideas and surfs through them hell-bent and frivolously (“You can do whatever!”), and on the way sneaked in a sketch, following natural talent Michael Jackson during the rehearsals for “This is it!” – an illustration of “research versus born ready”. As if to underscore the disposable identity she staged and propagated – because she also partially embodies it, despite herself – in her walk + talk, Bauer crumbled and threw aside one by one the papers on which she had written statements and themes after having treated them. Sometimes Bauer feels misunderstood: notwithstanding her easy-going manner of performing and her sense of humour, she stated solemnly to mean everything she does and says, without a hint of irony. And yet this one question persisted: are there still ideas and experiences that really matter?

For Chrysa Parkinson irony is a fundamental strategy (familiar for Americans, often misunderstood in Europe), related to the question how one can move through the foreign world of someone else and appropriate a place for oneself in it. As a dancer she is indeed co-creator of movement material, but that is being developed and performed within a frame set by a choreographer. She discussed among other things her recent experiences as a dancer with the shared body language and improvisational methods in Thomas Hauert’s Accords, or the collaboration with Jonathan Burrows on Dog Heart, liberating for its focus on composition and formal complexity – so far away from the obsessions with philosophy, dramaturgy and identity that govern the field of dance nowadays. Yet how could she relate in En atendant with that compulsive “femininity” which haunts the work of Rosas? Here, irony turned out to be a weapon and a tolerated margin for experimentation, upon which Parkinson demonstrated “the ironic part – it’s actually quite trashy.”

Next to research questions, all the participants to walk + talk implicitly shared their understanding of composition, the organisation of time and space, the distribution of attention. Turning one single idea inside out and neatly exhibiting it in an efficient form is nowadays a common way of working among a younger generation of dance makers, and something similar did Mette Ingvartsen by showing and explaining her part in the score of her group piece Giant City. Demonstrating eight different ways to relate to space, she mentioned in passing Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Apart from its content, the form of this book may shed an interesting light on Ingvartsen’s approach, which can possibly be discussed in relation to a particular strand of modernism: wasn’t Calvino after all a central figure of the Oulipo, the “workplace for potential literature” that sought innovation through self-imposed formal constraints?

By confronting the efficient management of ideas with an abundance of structure and intricate rules, Daniel Linehan seeks via an arbitrary contract and overwrought virtuosity room for failure and vulnerability, as well as for striking detail and poetry. Via choreography he stretches our relation to the screen, the computer and multitasking, thus placing his work in our times. But also a literary imagination resonated along in the walk + talk of Linehan, who as youngest participant concluded the series. At the end he invited the spectators to take place on stage for a reflection on the question of beginnings and endings, of how to make such a gesture, with which bodily attitude and gaze. After several attempts he asked everyone to suspend their applause and imagine themselves the performance were an experience “like reading a novel.”


A voluptuous vibration constantly stirs Chloe, the most chaste of cities. If men and women began to live their ephemeral dreams, every phantom would become a person with whom to begin a story of pursuits, pretenses, misunderstandings, clashes, oppressions, and the carousel of fantasies would stop.”

- Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities




(1) On the occasion of walk + talk, Sarma collected some thirty texts in which the invited choreographers reflect upon their artistic practice. See www.sarma.be.

(2) These themes have been discussed by me in an essay on the first walk + talk series: ‘Take a walk on the wild side, and talk’, April 2008, http://www.corpusweb.net/take-a-walk-on-the-wild-side-and-talk.html.

(3) In Jeroen Peeters (ed.), Are we here yet? Damaged Goods / Meg Stuart, Dijon, 2010, p. 20.