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Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker Brings Historic Work to the Walker

<i>Rosas danst Rosas</i>, 1983

Rosas danst Rosas, 1983

As part of Walktoberfest festivities celebrating the Walker Art Center's 75th anniversary, acclaimed Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker brings her groundbreaking dance Rosas danst Rosas to the museum this week. As an added bonus, de Keersmaeker will be performing in tonight's sold-out show.

The work, which blends rigid structure and repetition with extreme physicality and achingly personal gestures, has brought many a journalist to ask the choreographer if she views it as feminist piece, which she fiercely denied in the early days. Thirty-one years later, Keersmaeker says her views on whether she's a feminist have shifted.

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Since Keersmaeker created Rosas danst Rosas in 1983, the work has been performed more or less continuously. The choreography has remained intact, as has the music, which was created by Thierry de Mey and Peter Vermeersch. However, Keersmaeker says that audiences' perceptions of the work have changed, especially in terms of the piece's groundbreaking nature, which, for some audiences, isn't as self-evident as it was in the early 1980s.

"That sort of radicality is difficult to emerge today," she says. Still, audiences are impacted by the work's freshness, as well as its "combination of formal rigor and direct emotional impact."

"It was a slow process," she says of creating the piece as a young choreographer, working with a small group of women to develop the vocabulary. The performance is made up of a complex, rhythmic structure, through which the dancers express an understated sensuality. As you can see in a video, created by Thierry de Mey in the 1990s, the dancers repeat psychological gestures, such as impulsively tossing their plain shirts off their shoulders before demurely covering themselves up again. The dancers depict angst and sexual frustration, which boils underneath repetition and minimalism. "Through mathematical structure and extreme repetition emerged some kind of energy and imagination, which was new," Keersmaeker says.
  
"The work is sort of a combination of an extreme minimalism with extreme maximalism," she says. That juxtaposition of the structural framework and the extreme physicality is "where the emotion emerges." 

Early in her career, Keersmaeker was outspoken about not being labeled as a feminist. ''These works do not have to do with a feminist viewpoint,'' she was quoted saying in a New York Times article from 1987. ''I am looking at and responding to a vocabulary." Recalling that time, Keersmaeker says that whenever she was asked if she considered herself a feminist, her answer was always unequivocally no. "I was busy with my work and my choices. Whatever artistic choices I made, I kept them very close to myself," she says. 

That has shifted in recent years. "Being a female artist for 30 years, I'm still doing the things I wanted to do, but I think on a broader scale, in many places in the world women haven't gained recognition of their identity as human beings,"  she says.

Keersmaeker's shifting analysis of her own work in a feminist context offers an intriguing parallel to another female artist: Beyonce. In 2011, Beyonce debuted a music video that borrowed liberally from Keersmaeker's choreography, costumes, and set design without giving credit, sparking a fierce debate about copyright, fair use, and homage as it pertains to dance. What's been lost in the debate, however, is the relationship each of these women has with feminism. Where Beyonce describes herself as a feminist, she has faced criticism that her work doesn't express a feminist point of view. In contrast, Keersmaeker has been heralded as one of the great feminist choreographers in contemporary dance. As feminism evolves in the 21st-century, perhaps we can get to a place where such divergent points of view can fit under one tent.  

This week isn't the first time Keersmaeker has presented work at the Walker. Notable performances have included FASE: Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich in 2008 (she also stopped by the Art Shanty Projects that year), and Once, a solo she presented at the Walker in 2005 that incorporated the music of Joan Baez. For Keersmaeker, the Walker is comparable to only a few theaters around the world -- such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music -- that combine performing arts with visual arts, music, and film. "I think the Walker Art Center is the only place that has been doing that over such a period of time in a very consistent way," she says. 

She appreciates the broader context in which her piece is framed at the Walker. "The audiences have been exposed to a lot of different works, and they can see them with a historical perspective. That's quite crucial," she says.  

IF YOU GO:

Rosas Danst Rosas

8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday

$32

Walktoberfest

Free

You can read more about the four-day party here.