Dance in Other Spaces.

The Spectators Proximity Defines a New Space for Performance. Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker at the MoMA.

By Nicole Zee




Ascending the staircase to MoMA’s Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium on Saturday, April 2nd, I immediately encountered a cluster of museum visitors and the voice of a security guard intoning directions to step forward, as they were blocking the pathway. Wanting to avoid a similar chastisement, I quickly walked left, moving beyond the initial crowd of curious but non-committal exhibition-viewers to a space where I could see a clear view of the dancers of Rosas and musicians of Ictus performing Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Work/Travail/Arbeid.


At the time I arrived, three dancers standing on a pattern of circles chalked onto the floor began melting, slowly furling their spines as Jean-Luc Plouvier played part of Gérard Grisey’s Vortex Temporum on a grand piano. Eventually, their movements grew into larger spirals and shifts of weight that moved them along circular paths. I moved further into the atrium, taking a seat along the western wall as I settled in to view this expansion of de Keersmaeker’s 2013 Vortex Temporum from one hour to nine and from the proscenium theater to the museum.


Sitting along the periphery of the exhibit, not only did I get to see de Keersmaeker’s stunning choreography, but I also got to see how fellow museum-goers interacted with it. The Marron Atrium is the main point of access to the museum’s Contemporary Galleries, and visitors who were unaware of the performance had to navigate through the dancers, musicians, and spectators as they walked across the atrium to the galleries. Some kept their heads down and moved quickly, others, curious, decided to stop and watch for a bit before continuing on. Others, perhaps wary of the attention they might attract by walking through a performance, simply slunk away towards the escalators. Although the museum’s text about the exhibition encouraged spectators to move through and interact with the performance, most clung to the periphery, tacitly leaving a central space clear for the performers. However, as time went on, a few souls moved into the central space, obtaining an intimate view of the work while also becoming a part of it as the performers had to move with and around them.


Shifting a work from a theatrical venue to an exhibition space has several consequences: the idea of a fixed front disappears, as does the notion of a work having a set duration or chronology since visitors can come and go at any point in the work’s progress. Most noteworthy to me when viewing Work/Travail/Arbeid was the spectators’ involvement. Instead of passively sitting in assigned seats as they would in a theater, viewers had to make active choices about the way in which they would interact with the work. Would they sit or stand? Where (the work could also be seen from a balcony upstairs)? How long would they stay to watch? Given that the work was performed from 11am-5pm daily, would visitors come and go throughout the six-hour block or stay to watch an extended portion? These choices shape both performers’ and spectators’ experience of the work and are only possible in the museum context.


Perhaps a perfect example of the role of the spectator’s decision-making is a section in which music director Georges-Elie Octors pushes the piano along one of the circular tracks mapped out on the floor while Jean-Luc Plouvier is still playing it. When I visited, Octors guided the piano towards the periphery of the space where a seated group of spectators blocked his path. Initially, the visitors showed no intention of moving; they stayed put, daring Octors to stop. Octors continued, almost chasing the viewers, and signaled with his eyes that he had no intention of pausing or rerouting, and that they would need to move. The subsequent scramble of guests popping up and walking or crawling to new positions became part of the piece. Museums place dancers and dance-watchers in the same physical space, implicating the audience in the work. By sharing a physical space, performers and spectators share agency: both have to negotiate the others’ presence and as a result, shape how a dance work unfolds.


Viewing Work/Travail/Arbeid, I was involved in the work. My physical proximity to the dancers strengthened my empathetic responses to their movement. Additionally, the context forced me to make decisions and define my role in the work. Would I stand in the center of the floor or hang by the edges? Would I get out of the way as dancers approached or maintain my space? This collective experience and elaboration of meaning between audience and performer demonstrates the power of the museum environment to engage and empower the viewer, especially in comparison to the proscenium setting. Work/Travail/Arbeid begins to investigate the parameters and possibilities of dance’s medium outside of theatrical space and hints at more possibilities to be explored.