Cecilia Bengolea’s La Danse des Éléments, at a former steelworks in Esch, Luxembourg. Photo © Eike Walkenhorst

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Cecilia Bengolea: La Danse des Éléments

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Cecilia Bengolea’s La Danse des Éléments, at a former steelworks in Esch, Luxembourg. Photo © Eike Walkenhorst
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Awakening connections between dance, art, industrialism and personal history

When I was invited to review La Danse des Éléments, a new dance work by Argentinian-born, Paris-based choreographer Cecilia Bengolea in the small, south western Luxembourgish city of Esch, I never expected the visit would make me reflect on my childhood home. Having never previously visited Luxembourg, the main associations I’d had with the country were wealth and finance, which have seemingly little connection to Droitwich Spa, the small countryside town south-west of Birmingham in the UK where I grew up.

While Droitwich itself is small, quiet and rural, its proximity to England’s second city – which, along with the nearby Black Country, was credited as the birthplace of the industrial revolution – meant that my upbringing was filled with industrial narratives. These ranged from listening to stories from grandfather about his days as a toolmaker at the now closed Rover factory, to hearing my father speak about why he studied engineering over subjects he preferred. (‘Well, what would you do with a history degree in the West Midlands?’)

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During my teenage years I resented and rejected where I’d come from… I became insufferably absorbed in my new artistic life

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During my teenage years I resented and rejected where I’d come from. Instead, I dreamed of a life of ‘art, culture and sophistication’. When I moved to London aged 18 to train as a contemporary dancer – something that I’m sure previous generations of my family could never have conceived – I became insufferably absorbed in my new artistic life. My mum and dad even jokingly likened me to Pip from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations – who similarly moved to the city and grew embarrassed by his blacksmith brother-in-law – saying ‘what larks, old Em, old chap’ if I enthused too ebulliently about having escaped my home town for the big smoke.

Over time, however, themes of capitalism, industrialisation and mechanisation began to subconsciously surface in my work and interests. I created choreographic pieces inspired by Andy Warhol’s desire to be a machine and Victorian polymath John Ruskin’s criticisms of mass production. I wrote my dissertation exploring dance artists’ relationships with 1920s Berlin as a ‘mechanical metropolis’, and created endless playlists populated by the likes of Pink Floyd’s Welcome to the Machine and Heaven 17’s Crushed by the Wheels of Industry. Seemingly, I couldn’t escape my industrial past.

A crane in chimney as the background to a young female dancer in red leotard in the foreground, her arms stretching out to the edges of the frame
A dancer in Bengolea’s La Danse des Éléments. Photo © Eike Walkenhorst

And I still can’t, as manufacturing and mechanisation were the key topics I was confronted with when I arrived in Esch for Bengolea’s performance. Part of the city’s 2022 European Capital of Culture programme, La Danse des Éléments sought to respond to the industrial history of the Belval neighbourhood, interpreting it through the lens of danse libre (free dance), a movement that rejected classical styles of dance – as well as the increasingly industrial, rigid and mechanical context of the early twentieth century – in favour of a return to sensory experiences and nature. Think Isadora Duncan prancing pixie-like in the waves, or Rudolf Laban dancing naked by a lake in Monte Verità, Switzerland, with his troupe of devout followers.

Originally home to Luxembourg’s economy-fuelling steel industry until its collapse in the late 1970s, Belval still boasts two out of three of its original imposing blast furnace structures, now impressively integrated into the new modern architecture of the town. Bengolea’s performance took place on the foundations of the missing third – which was dismantled and shipped to China – where a circular performance space named ‘Socle C’ has been erected.

La Danse des Éléments opened with its cast performing a range of trios and duets on the top of the stone walls that surrounded the sunken performance space. Dressed in multi-coloured, Cunninghamesque unitards, the groups joined hands to create ceremonial circles and floated their limbs through space in choreography that was floaty and unspecific.

Connected to each other by harnesses – presumably for safety as well as artistic reasons – the dancers also supported each other in a range of counterbalances and risky manoeuvres, such as holding each other back as they lent and swung their bodies close to the edge of the steep drop beside them. These seemingly perilous moments, aided by the visions of cranes and blast furnaces in the background, effectively made me think of the dangerous conditions Belval’s former residents would have worked under, and the necessity for support and solidarity in industrial communities.

As the performance progressed, however, Bengolea’s themes became increasingly unclear. Descending into the performance space on the same level as the audience, the dancers began to perform more set routines, fusing together styles including neoclassical ballet (many of the female performers wore pointe shoes), contemporary dance and hip hop, to a score of electronic and rap tracks.

It was a perplexing mixture, and for a while I wasn’t sure how it all related to Bengolea’s initial intentions. Retrospectively, I thought that considering the dancers were students from CNSMD Lyon, by encouraging them towards new styles Bengolea liberated them from the confines of their classical training in the spirit of danse libre. Alternatively, the medley of cross-cultural styles could have represented how globalisation now allows us to use elements from across the world to smelt together new ‘products’, rather than just those we have on our doorstep.

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Cecilia Bengolea film installation Deary Steel at Mudam Museum. Photo © Simon Verjus

The day after the performance, I visited Bengolea’s film installation Deary Steel at Mudam Luxembourg, the wider artistic project of which La Danse des Éléments is a part. There, one screen of a three-sided structure showed a pregnant cyborg – reflecting how Bengolea’s own pregnancy impacted the creation process of the work, and reminiscent of the ‘Maschinenmensch’ in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) – dancing frantically in a factory environment. Leaping, tumbling, and throwing her limbs wildly, she balanced in handstands on the edge of a molten furnace, eventually diving into it and reemerging as an array of pots and pans. Created through a process of motion capture, the female robot raised questions about the historical links made between women and technological and industrial advancements.

Two other screens showed films combining the dancers from La Danse des Éléments with archival video clips from the heyday of Luxembourg’s steel industry, as well as footage captured during Bengolea’s research visit to an active steel plant, and quotes from the likes of Andy Warhol stating ‘life hurts so much. If we could become more mechanical, we could be programmed to do our jobs happily and efficiently.’ Bringing all of this material together gave greater context to Bengolea’s live performance. It also made me wonder whether I’d have had a different perception of the work if I’d seen the version performed in the installation itself, which I missed due to having to catch a train to Paris. Yet that train ride gave me time to think. Seeing the dedication with which the Esch 2022 team had created a programme of events drawing attention to Luxembourg’s industrial heritage – one that I was previously completely unaware of – made me reflect on my own.

I had envied those who grew up in capital cities, able to frequent major art and theatre institutions rather than Birmingham’s preserved back-to-back houses – examples of houses built around shared courtyards for the increasing population of Britain’s expanding industrial towns – and blacksmith’s forges at living history museums. Now, witnessing a major cultural event in a former industrial hub that also paid homage to and was inspired by its context, made me consider that industrial concerns are not the antithesis of art and culture. Industrial narratives are a part of cultures all around the world – and we should highlight this.

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Photo © Eike Walkenhorst

Of course, staging cultural events and performances in former industrial sites can sometimes feel slightly appropriative, especially when the key motivation is to exploit their grungy aesthetics and achieve Instagrammable press imagery rather than to highlight their cultural and social significance. However, when done right and enough background information is given (the Esch 2022 programme also included various informative exhibitions about the history of the area that greatly aided my interpretation of Bengolea’s work, and reportedly were very meaningful for former steelworkers and their families who came to see them), repurposing them can help tell untold stories and attract new audiences who may feel more comfortable in a former factory than on a velvet theatre seat. Note, too, that recycling industrial structures for cultural means is more environmentally conscious than establishing new ones.

That I, an English person from the Midlands, felt so connected to a project in the middle of Luxembourg, showed more common ground and shared histories between countries than we are aware of. In short, neither I, nor Esch, nor Luxembourg would be in the positions we are today without those who worked in engineering and industry before us and laid the foundations for us to take new and different directions. Works like Cecilia Bengolea’s and projects like Esch 2022 help to remind us of that. 

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Mudam, Esch, Luxembourg
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Cecilia Bengolea, “La Danse des Éléments” at Socle C, Esch-Belval. As part of ‘Deary Steel’, Esch2022 – European Capital of Culture and Mudam Luxembourg. Commissioning curators: Vincent Crapon and Joel Valabrega. With the Jeune Ballet du CNSMD de Lyon. With the generous support of LG OLED and ArcelorMittal Luxembourg. Photo(s): Eike Walkenhorst

Performed by: Jeune Ballet du CNSMD Lyon / Artistic direction Jeune Ballet du CNSMD Lyon: Kylie Walters / Dancers: Clara Chastagnac, Lucie-Mei Chuzel, Marie-Lou Durand, Eléonore Ghyssaert, Caroline Maquignon, Vincent Mazerot, Mathis Nour, Circé Persoud, Magdalen Wood / Ballet mistress: Gaëlle Communal Van Sleen / Rehearsal assistant: Franck Laizet / Costumes: Maïté Chantrel / With the support of: AXA Luxembourg, TROIS C-L – Centre de Création Chorégraphique Luxembourgeois

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