Belgium is a small country but a big hitter in the contemporary dance world, and over the last 30 years or so has become a magnet for dance artists from all around the world. Each year, the capital hosts the Brussels Dance! festival, the seventh edition – ‘1 city, 2 months, 18 venues, 80+ talks & shows, 180 performances’ – stretching throughout March and April 2022. More a conglomerate of different seasons than a masterminded programme, it nevertheless offers a window – or rather, windows – onto the dance scene(s) in Brussels.
For a few days in late March 2022, a group of 10 Springback dance writers gathered in Brussels, partly for a Springback meeting but also to attend some performances – principally those from the In Movement season at Les Brigittines, a ‘playhouse for movement’ built around a former 17th-century chapel, with studio, residency, performance and exhibition spaces; but also from the LEGS season at La Raffinerie, a former 19th-century sugar refinery, now the Brussels branch of the Charleroi Danse choreographic centre; and to watch classes and choreographic presentations of third-year students at the famous PARTS school.
At La Raffinerie, dance history was something of a theme. Louis Combeaud’s ‘Embodied Dance History’ workshop used talk, video clips and (crucially) practical movement exercises to guide us through a story of western dance history – a canonical one, to be sure, that was offset by other histories in performance: Dominique Duszynski’s autobiographical solo Else, a poetic re-membering of her years with Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch; Cabaret Welbeek, an uproarious evening with Alexandre Paulikevitch, drawing upon the traditions of baladi as well as making them his own; and L’opéra du villageois by Cameroonian Zora Snake, deploying earth, salt, plastic and Snake’s own body in a contemporary ritual that re-presented burial by colonialism.
Meanwhile at Les Brigittines, we wrote immediate responses to a programme of short performances. You can read these below, together with a response to seminars by sustainability expert David Irle, co-author of the recent book Décarboner la culture, on ecological transition in the performing arts sector.
In Movement at Les Brigittines
Ikue Nakagawa: Tamanegi
There are six figures on the stage; a picture=perfect family. But only one – Ikue Nakagawa – is animated, she plays the role of mother, daughter and wife. The others are puppets, staring blank faced, unmoved as Nakagawa dutifully positions them around the space. She creates tableaux by painstakingly directing; shaping and moving the others, cajoling and caring.
Her emotional and physical labour is not rewarded. When she looks to her ‘family’ for response or support, the faces remain darkly blank and she is lost, horribly lonely. When her partner eventually turns his back completely and releases the hand she tightly held, hers flounders like a dying fish, flapping. She is lost, pain etched on her face and wrought into her body.
This careful portrait of a woman’s role in a contemporary family quietly reveals the suffering and isolation that can lie beneath the smooth gloss of an ideal-looking surface.
Guilhem Chatir: Vertiges
A man lies on his stomach in the back of Les Brigittines’ chapel of intimidating dimensions. At first, only his hands move; then he slowly works his way up to a hunchbacked standing position. His head hangs so low that for a long time we only see the back of his skull that almost creates a second identity. Guilhem Chatir’s movement is urgent, involuntary, as he finally reveals his face to us. What is the force driving him?
We can almost hear it before it cuts into the air: the harrowing Sarabande from Bach’s second Partita for solo violin. Like an inflatable tube figure, Chatir collapses and recovers, abandons his body’s will to the music. Later, the soulful dialogue continues to La Chaconne. But when finally the music fades, there’s the inevitable sobering up – only a sense of disorientation is left for both performer and audience.
Purity and beauty that is rarely seen on the dance stage these days, but all the more needed.
Shantala Pépe, Carcan
Slowly emerging from the darkness of the background of the stage, a dancer, dressed in a tight red dress, almost resembles a mirage. She sways to a measured rhythm of music, reminiscent of the mysterious atmosphere of the famous Twin Peaks restaurant located in a parallel reality. She swings her hips and crosses her knees, shifting from one foot to the other, gradually moving forward, closer to the audience. But she never becomes truly close, material, tangible, always shimmering between reality and illusion. She stretches one arm forward and strokes it with the other hand, then changes the arms, then changes again. She turns her wrists and palms in metronomic movement loops, demonstrating herself and at the same time totally taking control of our attention.
Eleven minutes long, Shantala Pèpe’s Carcan is another dance performance on power and vulnerability of femininity, pure and enchanting. The dancer appears powerful in her hypnotising undulations and defenceless in the trap of self-representation. Repetitive, consistent, and as shortas a variety show number, Carcan manages to embody opposing meanings in a form as simple as it is compelling. She catches your gaze, allows you to scrutinise her to the extent she herself defines, and disappears in the dark as if she didn’t even exist.
If you are familiar with the infinity symbol, then you probably know already what it represents – and if a dance duet brings it on stage as a pattern in space, well, you might expect a vortex of infinite movement. But infinity, explained here in dance terms, does not really count on diversity. On the contrary, to get things going you just need some basic composing elements: count a few steps and have two dancers crisscrossing each other ad infinitum.
In Gyre, by Angela Rabaglio and Micaël Florentz, the effect is mesmerising: once they start moving it feels like the main stage of Les Brigittines has turned into a dark hole. All matter is absorbed into nothingness and the beginning is very much like the end. But spot the endurance, discipline, sharpness and ghostly presence of the dancers, and you’re convinced that this ‘gyroscopic’ duet is all about nuances that go unnoticed: a type of gestural impressionism that blurs the boundaries before and after each movement. After all, perspective is about examining things closely: a hunching torso, a beating foot, a disappearing face that comes back not to haunt you, but to strike you with the simplicity of things.
Florencia Demestri and Samuel Lefeuvre: Troisième Nature
An eerie and radiant sculpture, seemingly made of foil, marks the centre of the circular black stage. Soon, its surface starts throbbing and shuddering, moved from the inside by the two dancers. Its shape constantly changes, and soon it ‘falls apart’ as the performers break what first seemed a singular entity. What is the inner force that moves this mass? What is its agency? Does it have emotions? These questions kept buzzing in my head until the startling last minutes of the piece.
The final scenes of the show conspire to be both unexpected and firmly embedded in the work’s overall dramaturgy. The dancers regain their verticality, slowly emerging from their other-worldly shells – but instead of greeting the audience, they swiftly engage in a series of sophisticated locks and tense holds that keep the foil surface fluttering. The veil of fiction is lifted, all tricks unravelled. The way in which Demestri and Lefeuvre lay bare their method and play between moving and being moved is disarmingly honest and refreshingly smart.
For an ecology of no guilt: shifting perspective, failing better
Listening to the lectures ‘Spectacle vivant en transition’ (Live performance arts in transition) and ‘La sobrieté numerique: une nécessité environnementale’ (Digital temperance: an environmental need) led by David Irle at Les Brigittines, in the frame of the In Movement festival, I gained a broader perspective about our responses to climate crises.
When confronted with climate change, the art world was one of the first to put responses in place: trying to improve energy sources, avoiding plastics, selling tote bags, asking artists to travel by train, planting trees… But how to be sure that we’re doing the right thing? The answer might be unexpected: don’t act out of guilt, act out of a sense of power and responsibility.
As dance professionals we deal with complexity every day, and yet we forget that the climate crisis is not at all simple. looking at it closely, we come to realise that it is not possible to have an impact on all its aspects, but that it is possible to contribute towards solutions. We are invited by our planet to make choices and be co-responsible for its welfare. In short: we can act, so we should act.
If it is true that desperate times call for desperate measures, it is also true that live performing arts and especially dance have been mastering the art of the creative process while allowing space for failure. So let’s treat our response to climate change as a creative process.
First, let’s go back to basics: what is the complex bigger picture of climate crises? What are the responses put in place by the legislation of the country we live in? How can the values that guide us match concrete action? This first step is not risk-free: conservativism and avoidance are easier than action, pointing the finger at others seems to lessen our own burden, giving up is tempting and trying to be perfect is exhausting. So a second step would be to remind ourselves that dance can work on different levels at once: transforming the audience’s imagination on the one hand, while simultaneously keeping track of our real, practical impacts (being aware, for example, that the carbon costs of artist travel are significantly less than the combined effect of audience travel.). Are there public transport schemes or car-sharing platforms that you could tap, or encourage? Make this awareness, and decisions based upon it, part of your everyday way of thinking.
Having become aware of our impact, the third step is to rethink our approach, moving from the quick fix to long-lasting sustainability. ’If the organisation is not responsible,’ says Irle, ‘it cannot be sustainable’.
Regarding digital technologies in the arts, Irle shares the importance of a good balance: for example, since the fabrication of our devices is the most polluting part of its life cycle, we should make sure theyhave a long life and investigate how they can be reused. But he also lists simple things that help create good habits: from keeping cloud storage and mailboxes in order to unsubscribing from unopened newsletters. If you have an audience that mostly uses phones, reduce print materials; if your audience loves print, choose recycled paper. A Zoom meeting is better than a car trip or a flight, but may be worse than a train ride. Playing videos emits much more carbon than listening to audio, so decide if you really need it, and at what resolution. It is cheap to share everything online, but it also takes space and energy to store and to use. Maybe rediscovering the art of simplicity could help communications and the environment, too!
All these small acts create a change of mind-set: sustainability is not simply an emergency response, but an organised plan of shared principles that guides projects and actions. Guilt should not be our guide; let us rather foster relationships with experts, scientists, artists and other organisations to build a sustainable dance ecology.