Date 2002

Publication The Low Countries



Company / Organization

Keywords choreographersyoungbelgiumartistsworkartisticflemishimportantgovernmenttime

Seething cauldron -- dance in Brussels

At the beginning of 2001, Steve Paxton was a guest at a series of evenings of dance improvisations in the Flemish Brussels Kaaitheater. After one of the performances he remarked that the former brewery in the Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-van-Vaakstraat, which for many years housed the studios of the Kaaitheater, was the birthplace of the current "boom'' in dance and dance improvisation in Belgium, and particularly in Brussels. And he was right. In the early 1980s it was there and in Leuven, during the first years of the Klapstuk dance festival, that a number of important Flemish choreographers made their debut. Since then, names such as De Keersmaeker, Fabre, Vandekeybus have become famous all over the world. In the early 1980s important activity developed in other Flemish cities such as Antwerp and Ghent, but within no time this work was performed on these stages too -- and received substantial backing from them. Furthermore, both Kaaitheater and Klapstuk were quick to acknowledge that a context had to be created for this new work, that introduced a completely new language of forms into the slumbering Belgian scene. That is why from the very beginning prominent avant-garde choreographers (mainly from the USA) such as Paxton, Brown and Childs were invited to perform in Brussels and Leuven.

However, Kaaitheater was not entirely isolated in Brussels. At about the same time Fréderic Flamand launched a French-language initiative, Raffinerie du Plan K, based in an old sugar refinery in Molenbeek. Artists from all disciplines gathered there and Flamand presented his first multimedia dance experiments in collaboration with artists such as Marin Kasimir. Another small but commendable initiative, Contredanse, contributed to the revival of contemporary dance by providing trainee places.

In retrospect, this burst of choreographic creativity can only be attributed to the dialectics of progress. When it came to ballet as well as contemporary dance, at that time Brussels and Belgium were simply non-existent in the European context. Any policy, let alone a sense of national artistic pride was lacking in dance. Thus, Brussels was artistically speaking a suburb of European culture. Yet suburbs often prove to be the birthplace of new ideas. It is in garages and lonely attics, not in the spotlights of important stages that young artists with few resources and even fewer opportunities develop new insights. The one bright spot in the otherwise dismal Brussels situation was Béjart's Ballet of the Twentieth Century. Although his ecstatic form of aesthetics had had its heyday in the 1980s, in retrospect his presence has proved to be very important because of his MUDRA school for young choreographers. It was at MUDRA for example that a number of young dancers, who would later form Rosas, met for the first time.

In the meantime, the situation was far from easy for these young Turks because the government failed to support them, even when they gained substantial international recognition. They survived by working closely with new autonomous organisations for the performing arts, which later evolved into arts centres with official recognition and support. Rosas for instance had to threaten to move abroad for sufficient subsidies to be forthcoming. And history has a habit of repeating itself. When the American Meg Stuart moved to Brussels in the early 1990s, after pioneering performances such as Disfigure Study and No longer ready-made, the government's wait-and-see approach lasted so long that she looked for and found a ‘second residence', this time in Zürich, where her nationality was less of an obstacle to obtaining substantial financial support.

Nevertheless, it can be said that the situation had changed radically since the 1990s: Flemish Companies such as De Keersmaeker, Vandekeybus, Fabre and Platel were no longer the cuckoos in the nest, but had become leading figures in the Belgian and European dance scene. However, the Royal Ballet of Flanders, technically outstanding but with very little artistic recognition, still received the better part of the dance subsidies of the Flemish Community, who decides in cultural matters over the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. In French-speaking Belgium however, the Ballet de Wallonie was wound up and replaced by Charleroi/Danses under the artistic direction of Fréderic Flamand from Plan K. Charleroi/Danses is officially charged with developing a contemporary dance policy in Wallonia. Consequently, it swallows up most of the government subsidies. As a result, young choreographers looking for the chance to work have no choice but to ask Flamand for it. Organisations such as Contredanse have to be content with the crumbs from the subsidy table. Charleroi/Danses also maintains its own dance company which mostly performs Flamand's own work, a peculiar form of techno-baroque for which he invariably succeeds to seduce many leading artists and architects into making a contribution. Despite its name, Charleroi/Danses, the artistic nerve centre of this organisation is again in Brussels, in the renovated Plan K studios.

The presence of so many prominent groups and institutions in Brussels had two main consequences. The 1990s saw the beginning of a large-scale migration of young dancers to companies in Brussels and elsewhere in Belgium. In this rapidly growing colony, all manner of new, small-scale partnerships were born. The organisations which, from the outset, had supported and presented the work of young Belgian choreographers, extended and reinforced their international networks. As a result, more and more international work was performed in Belgium. In the case of Meg Stuart and her Damaged Goods -- which will receive structural funding from the Flemish Government for the period 2001-2005 - this even led to a permanent residency, while the outstanding English choreographer Jonathan Burrows regularly works in Brussels and Ghent.

The sense of euphoria created by this situation blinded people to the fact that it was largely due to happenstance. Some important movements abroad also went to some extent unnoticed by Belgian artists and spectators. Anne-Teresa de Keersmaeker was one of the first people to realise this. She is now resident choreographer at De Munt, the National Opera, just like Béjart before her. Inspired by the example of MUDRA, she worked with the National Opera to set up the Performing Arts Research & Training Studio (PARTS) in 1995. Didactically speaking, the training at PARTS broke the mould. In contrast to standard arts training programs in Belgium, students have to apply for selection and are recruited worldwide. Also, PARTS provided training that goes beyond the purely technical aspects. The wide-ranging curriculum includes theoretical aspects such as general cultural history and theory, and the dance classes range from classical ballet to Trisha Brown's ‘release technique'. The teachers are furthermore internationally acknowledged as the best in their field. The effect of PARTS was, in a short space of time, stunning. It filled a gap in the market. The first students to graduate quickly made a name for themselves throughout Europe. More importantly, young choreographers at the school formed an intellectual artistic network, that survived their schooldays, if only because many students stayed in Brussels after completing their training and were given work opportunities in the buildings of Rosas, Parts and Kaaitheater.

In recent years, the pressure in Brussels has risen enormously, making it a seething cauldron of talent. No other European city has so many ambitious dancers and choreographers. And this comes at a crucial time. The model of theatrical dance that gradually evolved in Europe during the 1980s has been increasingly criticised during the past few years. The first indication of this was the renewed interest in improvisation that Meg Stuart's programme Crash Landing, among others, helped to bring about. These evening-length performances, where dancers and artists of every description meet and perform spontaneously, were conceived in 1995 during the Klapstuk Festival. The programme has travelled throughout Europe and attracted a wide following. It is no coincidence that leading figures from the experimental post-modern New York dance scene of the 1960s, such as Steve Paxton, took part.

At the same time, many young choreographers were seeking inspiration from the more radical conceptual experiments of this avant-garde. Philosophical discourse was suddenly ‘in' again. Now, the tone is set by artists such as Jérôme Bel, Boris Charmatz, Xavier Leroy, Thomas Plischke, Vincent Dunoyer and, of course, Meg Stuart, who is an important bridge between the two generations. Their work is characterised by radical research into the working and presentation conditions of dance. Many of them work closely with the Brussels scene. In Belgium itself, Alexander Baervoets, Charlotte Van den Eynde, Ugo Dehaes, Thomas Hauert and many others are contributing to the shifting paradigm in contemporary dance. It is no coincidence that they all have (or have had) some connection with PARTS, or with one of the many companies in Brussels.

Remarkably, existing artistic platforms have been very slow to stimulate or provide an outlet for the enormous artistic potential in the capital. Apart from the Kaaitheater, one of the few active institutions in this regard is the Beursschouwburg, which gives free reign to young choreographers. It does this in a number of ways -- some of them quite radical -- which can go as far as abandoning the concept of a completed performance as the raison d'être of the theatre. A fairly recent example of this is an amazing experiment by the choreographer Thomas Plischke, who invited selected friends and like-minded members of the public to live and work in the theatre for ten days, engaging in debate and performing finished and unfinished pieces. In the words of Meg Stuart: "This is the hottest place in Brussels". Outside Brussels, Dans in Kortrijk is also taking up the challenge with its programme Dans@Tack, which aims to take everyday ideas and make them visible for audiences. The question we are now faced with is this: will the rest of the theatrical establishment in Brussels jump on this bandwagon before it packs up and moves on due to lack of interest?