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.