Joachim Koester, Tarantism, 2007. © Courtesy of Joachim Koester and Jan Mot, Brussels

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Danser Brut – outsider dance

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Joachim Koester, Tarantism, 2007. © Courtesy of Joachim Koester and Jan Mot, Brussels
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Oonagh Duckworth
A wide ranging exhibition across two museums in Belgium gives fascinating visions of the idea of ‘outsider dance’

Movement as both a symptom of madness and its remedy; art and dance’s potential to heal social ills as well as to mask them – Danser Brut is a multiplication, a mixture, a mise-en-abîme of these poignant paradoxes. Presented jointly by Bozar in Brussels and the Dr Guislain Museum in Ghent, Danser Brut is a fascinating exhibition that sheds light on the connection between dance and involuntary and repetitive movements – a theme that, because Covid-19 is still making us dance the two steps forward, one step back jig*, seems to hold particular appeal right now.

Danser Brut assembles a wide-ranging mix of films, photographs, collage, drawings and paintings together with carefully curated hospital documents and archive material. The works have been selected not for the ‘genius or the madness of the artist’, but because they are ‘movement in the purest form’. From big names to anonymous, ‘outsider’ (brut) artists, the works on display have largely been inspired by the physical paroxysms associated with altered mental states or insanity. The work created not only resonates with the viewer, but in many instances seems to provide relief from the artist’s own anguish, which is at the essence of much of art brut.

Both host venues lead us thorough the same five themes – Spinning Around, Trance and Possession, Charcot to Chaplin, Forest of Gestures and Dance of the Pencil – with several oeuvres doubled up in both cities. The backdrop of the Dr Guislain Museum, housed in the original 1857 brick built psychiatric asylum, certainly emphasises the correlation between madness and movement. The elegant Art Nouveau, Victor Horta, Bozar building however, delivers more momentum to the visit. Again, the constraints of Covid 19 mean we are swept through the five rooms on a long, one-directional curve. Angles in several spaces have been rounded off by hip-height walls, accentuating the idea that we are surfing a wave as we walk.

The first moving image we meet is a film of Valeska Gert, fluttering on a free-floating screen in the middle of the space. The Berlin performer, who came to prominence between 1914 and 1928, would station herself in front of blank cinema screens whilst the film reels were being changed. At times she would remain static, challenging the startled public to project their own imagination, anxieties and desires onto her immobility. At others she would dance ‘death’ or ‘the orgasm’ or ‘a road accident’ with convulsive and unrestrained movements whose intensity lent them alarming veracity. The exhibit still startles us today, not just because of its power, but because, although dated 1925, we instantly recognise Gert’s persisting legacy: the facial mannerisms of Pina Bausch’s dancers immediately spring to mind, as do the consciously impudent hip swings and shoulder shrugs of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s first works. Gert was considered a precursor of punk for good reason.


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Valeska Gert, Tänzerische Pantomimen, 1925, film still. © Images des collections du Centre national de la danse CN D
Valeska Gert, Tänzerische Pantomimen, 1925, film still. © Images des collections du Centre national de la danse CN D

Then there comes the carousel section: Spinning Around. Here multiple merry-go-rounds installed on a rotating plinth catch the light and cast shadows. They are the work of ‘outside artist’ René Guisset, a French farm worker, born in 1935, who, despite poor health, was able to fashion strangely characterful circus carousels out of vegetable crates, old paint pots and nails. On the walls nearby are the equally obsessive, meticulously felt-pen-coloured works of Helmut Nimczewski, a Polish outside artist born in 1945, whose densely detailed drawings are so brimming with sunshine and light, ferris-wheels and jauntiness, that they are, literally, dazzling.

Trance and Possession is much more sombre, and reveals details about the fascinating yet unfathomable mediaeval ‘dance epidemics’. The first of several, dating back to the 14th century, spread throughout Europe from the Lower Rhine, through Flanders and into France. Rare drawings, in the style of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, portray an annual pilgrimage that took place throughout the 16th century in Molenbeek – a Brussels commune, more recently brought into the public eye for being a terrorist hideout – to commemorate a ‘dancing plague’ where some people danced themselves to death. There was speculation at that time whether the dancing was heresy or illness. The epidemics often emerged at times of social unrest, when authority was being questioned or even challenged. Their potential power for inciting insurrection was fully recognised and therefore they were not prohibited but rather the dancing ‘victims’ denigrated as ‘loose women’ and ‘ignorant men’.

The section continues to delve into the links between dance, mental illness and death with examples of 15th-century woodcuts of skeletons gleefully dancing La Danse Macabre, and more recent works such as Serbian Goran Djurović’s ZE-RE-MO-NIE, showing a skull-headed figure mercilessly manipulating human marionettes. But what dominates the room once again is a suspended screen showing an extract of Paracelsus (1943) by revered Austrian film director Georg Wilhelm Pabst. Active during the Weimar Republic, Pabst unwillingly made some work, including Paracelsus, under the auspices of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. A lot of Nazi-era cinema has been re-evaluated in recent decades as being subtly subversive against the Reich; Paracelsus is one example, with its emphasis on love as a healing force. The scene shown here is The Dance of Death, choreographed and performed by Mary Wigman’s pupil Harald Kreutzberg, who incarnates the Black Death entering into quarantined Basel, and ‘contaminating’ its people. Not only do we feel we are looking down an expressionist kaleidoscope at a dislocated version of our current situation, but we definitely espy bits of Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring, flavours of Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story, and, most patently, nearly all of the choreography of Michael Jackson’s famed video, Thriller.


‘Dance of Death’ from GW Pabst’s Paracelsus

Choreographers such as Meg Stuart and Alain Platel understood from the start that shuddering, contortions, twitching and compulsive repetitive gestures on stage convey psychological angst more directly than any words. But the borrowing of movements from ‘madness’ for artistic ends, in the western world of cinema, predates these choreographers by over a century. Hysteria and syndromes like Tourette’s were being researched and documented in Paris’ Salpêtrière hospital, with images made available to a wider public for the first time. According to this section of the exhibition, Charcot to Charlie, the tics and spasms of patients were imitated by the likes of Charlie Chaplin who made them a hallmark of his comic genius. And the slapstick farce, Le Frotteur (1907) by Alice Guy, the first ever female film director and probably the only one at that time, is prodigious in the way it uses this marginalised movement simultaneously for comic effect and social comment: Le Frotteur is a cleaner who, literally, brings down a bourgeois household.


Alice Guy: Le Frotteur (1907)

Another even earlier case of the entwinement of altered states of mind, art and dance is illustrated by the rise to fame of Moulin Rouge dancer Jane Avril, herself a patient of Jean-Martin Charcot, immortalised in an 1893 poster by Toulouse Lautrec. Her famous and adored can-can dancing was said to have been a consequence of sporadic fits of epilepsy.

But the exhibition is much more than a juxtaposition of illness and art. Seek out the gyroscopic circles traced by Nijinsky when he was obliged to stop his career as a dancer. Or the wall of drawings by 13-year-old autistic artist Lucile Notin-Bourdeau, who, unable to speak, expresses her inner world thorough pencilled, diaphanous figures, all of whom avoid our gaze. And then Louise Bourgeois’ beautiful and terrifying Tryptic for the Red Room, where two bodies, one female, one male, are strained and stretched, arching back into a pose so often associated with hysteria.

My special prize though goes to John Elsas, a German banker and stockbroker who, beginning at the age of 75, in 1926, made a 25,000-page illustrated oeuvre for his grandchildren with delightful, hopping, skipping and spinning characters, each offering a nugget of advice on the world, on philosophy and how to deal with the rise of national socialism.

The exhibition ends with Tarantism, a 2007 film installation by Danish artist Joachim Koester based on the idea of the medieval, manic dance, the tarantella, thought to cure victims of the tarantula spider’s venomous bite. It films a group of contemporary dancers in the throes of a modern-day tarantella. The improvising of convulsive movements is a staple part of a dancer’s training today, so it seems an appropriate piece to close the exhibition’s curve.

But wait, there is one more I hadn’t noticed: a work by Philippe Vandenberg, a Belgian artist who committed suicide in 2009. KILL THEM ALL AND DANCE it shouts furiously in large, sprawled letters.

In Belgium, as elsewhere, the arts are suffering. Artists are angry at having to justify their relevance during the Covid crisis. More than ever before, art institutions are conscientiously bringing into focus the important role art plays in our lives and in society. Danser brut is part of the launch of Bozar’s new season themed ‘Art and Wellbeing’. The exhibition’s introduction also asks: ‘What does all that unbridled movement say about our state of wellbeing?’ I’m not sure yet, but at least it shows we are still alive. Being able to see this particular exhibition, for me, was definitely therapeutic. 

* The phrase ‘two steps forward, one step back’ comes from the quaint Dancing Procession of Echternach, held yearly in the oldest town in Luxembourg that grew up around the Abbey founded in 698. The procession’s origins are obscure, but it’s listed by UNESCO as representative of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.


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The Danser Brut exhibition runs until 10 January 2021 at:
Bozar, Brussels, Belgium
Dr Guislain Museum, Ghent, Belgium

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