Libya, by Radouan Mriziga. Photo © Beniamin Boar


A bird’s-eye view at Kunstenfestivaldesarts 2023

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Libya, by Radouan Mriziga. Photo © Beniamin Boar
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A selection of performances from Brussels’ expansive Kunstenfestivaldesarts shows its stylistic and thematic range

This year’s Kunstenfestivaldesarts continued a tradition to represent a diverse spectrum of performing arts, from big names to newcomers, from experimental to established, from local Brussels-based artists to makers from countries of all continents. The following is a bird-eye view of six shows, part of the dance programming, curated by festival directors Daniel Blanga Gubbay and Dries Douibi.

Adam and Amina Seid Tahir, Several attempts at braiding my way home

Adam Seid Tahir, Amina Seid Tahir: Several attempts at braiding my way home

Siblings Adam and Amina Seid Tahir explore belonging, tradition, and contemporaneity, addressing their Swedish upbringing and Eritrean roots, as well as queerness, in a dance solo for Adam where the African hair braiding practice is literally woven into the Nordic fishing nets. Placed centre stage at the studio of Les Brigittines, the installation of a hanging carpet made of nets and hair braids with a body caught in the middle, taking time to slowly braid and unbraid itself into that landscape, is indeed the most impressive discovery of this piece. Afro hair plays an important role in that other-worldly home and within the meditative state of the extended prologue we witness an almost ritualistic hair routine preparation.

The dance material that follows comes in a quite contrasting pace but feels somehow unfinished. It is supposed to be a celebration of newly discovered identity and appreciation and acceptance of one’s own body, but the short scenes feel disjointed from each other, with the transitions between them sometimes as abrupt as if you’re scrolling through a social media feed. The light goes from purple to blue to green to red, a series of grimaces appear and disappear from Adam’s so-called ‘stank face’ (a reference to funk music culture, I later read in the booklet) and everything is so sped up that before you know it the piece is over, leaving you a bit confused.

Lara Barsacq, La Grande Nymphe

Lara Barsacq: La Grande Nymphe

In her work Lara Barsacq continuously revisits the archives of the Ballets Russes, and in this new piece particularly (Prélude à) l’après-midi d’un faune – the poem by Mallarmé, the musical composition by Debussy, and the ballet by Nijinsky – from a feminist perspective. The all-female team – two dancers (one the choreographer herself) and a DJ – rewrites the classic from the point of view of the nymphs, which they embody in a series of dances, conversations, jokes, videos, roller-skating practice, deep archive research at L’Opéra de Paris and performing their own synth pop songs written specifically for the show that could rival The Knife and that go as far as to reference Orlando by Virginia Woolf, a writer who shares similarly subversive intentions.

In an interlude where the performers directly address both the audience and their personal motivations for the piece, we are told that at the end of the original ballet the faun ejaculates – but what about the grande nymphe? Did she climax as well? This playful twist of dance history is nonchalant, performed effortlessly without trying too hard, even with slight disinterest, a sort of detached coolness. That makes the piece light, funny, intelligent, honouring tradition without ever bowing to it.

Stage version of Lenio Kaklea’s Αγρίμι (Fauve). Photo © Anna van Waeg
Stage version of Lenio Kaklea’s Αγρίμι (Fauve). Photo © Anna van Waeg

Lenio Kaklea: Αγρίμι (Fauve)

With a similar feminist motivation, Lenio Kaklea creates a choreography of what she calls re-wilding the body. The Greek word for beast/wild animal that gave the piece its title (agrimi) is also used to designate unmarried women. Starting from a legend about the bear woman, who gets lost in the forest and finds out that “beasts are human”, the movement material attempts to reclaim wildness and explore what it means for a female body to refuse to be domesticated, as well as to navigate the (male) gaze of the other (and maybe also of the audience) which frames it on the spectrum between (sexual) predator and prey. A dance with a chain uncovered under the leaves and placed in front of the eyes of one of the performers, is probably the most direct reference to that.

Performed in Duden park in the Brussels neighbourhood of Forest at 7am, the time when animal hunting in Brussels used to start in the past, the piece seemed a somewhat automatically transposed from the stage to the park (it was also performed in a theatre space, but I couldn’t see that version). There were stage lights despite the natural light, music blasting loudly from two speakers, benches for the audience to sit on, and a clearly designated ‘stage’ in an empty space between the trees. The sounds of birds singing and the wind moving the branches of trees were unfortunately lost in this theatrical artifice. While there was some interesting play with perspective, distance and proximity between the trees, as well as a short accidental appearance of a dog on the opposite end of the ‘stage’, the opportunity to rethink the choreography as a site-specific immersion was missed; but perhaps that was never the intention.

Radouan Mriziga, Libya

Radouan Mriziga: Libya

Libya is the name ancient Greeks and Romans used for the African continent, and its entire northern part is where the Amazigh are the indigenous population. Radouan Mriziga looks into their language, culture and traditions as inspiration for this piece. Eight performers with North African roots have developed its movement material by looking at rock drawings and carvings. Against a backdrop of specific musical rhythms from the region, video impressions from desert and shore, and mixing the imagination of the dancers with some preserved traditional dances they’re well acquainted with, Mriziga composed this eclectic mix choreographically into complex constellations, further highlighted by the colours (on the floor, in the costumes, on the palms of the dancers’ hands) and geometrical patterns in the magnificent atrium space of Mercerie in Brussels, with natural light coming down from its glass ceiling.

The group of dancers, of various ages and body types, moves gracefully and forcefully, initially in complete silence, with their feet tapping rhythmically on the floor, their hands going through a series of gestures, or clapping, or stretching and pointing in different directions, or gently touching each other’s bodies as their trajectories intersect. They perform with precision and ease, switching between the in and out of the performance space, between collective dances and solos, often smiling at each other, as if sharing a common secret. The beauty of it also comes from the chance to see each of them as individuals, despite following a strict score. Awe-inspiring highlights for me were Maïté Minh Tâm Jeannolin in her masterful embodiment of the movement vocabulary that has become like a second nature, and Elhad Bilal, whose gravity-defying lightness and body-centred concentration challenge that form from within.

The work has it all, to such an extent that one starts to wonder how much of it is artistic urgency and how much a well calculated move?

Untitled (Holding Horizon) by Alex Baczyński-Jenkins. Photo © Françoise Robert
Untitled (Holding Horizon) by Alex Baczyński-Jenkins. Photo © Françoise Robert

Alex Baczyński-Jenkins: Untitled (Holding Horizon)

Untitled (Holding Horizon) is an intense three-hour ritual of flock-like traversing of the space of a former gym, with the (dis)organisation of bodies based on the box step, a sequence used in social dances. The performers, mostly seen only as silhouettes, walk back and forth, move in circles and in spirals, with light jumps and abrupt turns and changes of direction. They form groups and relations only to dissolve them, synchronise for a moment before breaking the pattern or leaving the space, then return with a slight change in their gender-bending attire. There’s a fluidity and pleasure to it – both in terms of gender and movement organisation – but also a contrasting harshness and aggression coming from a heavy and menacing soundscape of techno beats and repetitive electronics. What does it say about our current social reality? Later, sounds from nature and retro music are introduced – a sort of nostalgia within a dystopian present? Traversing the space as a self-affirmation brought a distant comparison to Trajal Harrell’s work and its relation to vogueing (once again also part of the festival) but Harrell’s universe remains light-hearted and innocent in comparison, a nostalgic remnant of a less politically dark time.

Here, the foreboding and decadent atmosphere probably has something to do with the current social and political dead-end that the west finds itself in, but also with Poland’s own neo-conservative vision for the future, and the piece could be seen as a warning in that sense. In the theoretical reflections of Paz Rojo from her book To Dance in the Age of No-Future: ‘any artistic proposal committed to the future will warn us about something we all have in common: the absence of a horizon, which is not only the absence of prospects but also of the opportunity to elaborate it as a political-aesthetic force.’

The endurance makes one think of Berlin’s techno rave parties which are seen as a form of sabotage to the rhythms of capitalism with exhaustion and refusal to rest and recover (for example in Ingrid Luquet Gad’s essay about Berghain, ‘Never stop dancing, or How to sabotage neoliberalism’s biorhythm’). But what if the dance has become the work? Are we then doing exactly what this system expects us to?

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Myriam van Imschoot & Lucas van Haesbroeck: Nocturnes for a Society. Photo © Veerle Vercauteren
Myriam van Imschoot & Lucas van Haesbroeck: Nocturnes for a Society. Photo © Veerle Vercauteren

Myriam van Imschoot, Lucas van Haesbroeck: Nocturnes for a Society

In Nocturnes for a Society, Myriam van Imschoot and Lucas van Haesbroeck go in the opposite direction for an even longer overnight performance. In our economy of exhaustion, they offer a space of care and slowing down by inviting us to make music, sing, eat and then sleep together under the sounds of our recorded chants (‘a nocturnal carpet of sounds’).

We are invited into the space of K1 – Kanal Centre Pompidou, spread over two floors, where we get to choose a makeshift musical instrument each (usually a glass plate or cup with beads inside that roll and rattle as we move). Two times throughout the night, we receive pieces of paper with instructions – precise yet not demanding, leaving space to wander around or to opt out: we share a soup for dinner, then sing together, gently guided by Myriam and her team of collaborators (the piece was developed in a series of Sessions with volunteers across Brussels and all the names are listed on the poster). The singing unfortunately goes for only 15 or 20 minutes and just when you feel you start to access the depths and discover the surprises of your own voice within the collective choir, things calm down. Inflated beds, pillows, duvets, and blankets are waiting for us on the ground floor and people sleep tightly close to each other. The experience reminded me of July morning – a fairly recent Bulgarian tradition developed by the counterculture of the 80s, inspired by a Uriah Heep song of the same name, where hitchhikers would flock to the Black Sea coast to spend the night together at the shore waiting for the first sunrise of July.

The early risers in the morning place the plates on their bellies and the soft breathing creates a rhythmic sound to which the rest of the group wakes up. A breakfast with croissants and coffee follows on the opposite side of the canal. Just next to Kaaitheater in renovation, with refugees and homeless people sleeping in tents next to the bridge nearby, and workers performing heavy physical labour, the whole experience might also feel like a bubble and leave some with mixed feelings – but it was certainly unlike anything else in the festival. 

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Brussels, Belgium