Seeing Time: Music as Movement

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's Vortex Temporum

by Angela Brown on October 24th, 2016

Vortex Temporum. Igor Shyshko, Carlos Garbin, and Boštjan Antončič. Photo by Robert Altman.

Vortex Temporum: the spiral of time. What does this title mean, for both music and dance? Art, of all genres, has long been preoccupied with time, whether depicting the cycle of the seasons or the poetics of the fleeting moment. Renaissance artists famously prompted intellectual debates— called paragone— over the relative capacities of artistic mediums, contemplating which medium could best represent the temporal. Was time more profoundly implicated in a painted golden strand of an angel’s hair, blowing in the wind, or in the veins of a young man’s strong foot, frozen mid-motion in marble? While painters and sculptors battled over who could best create visual “harmony” in light and color, music, long considered the ‘courtliest’ of the arts, has always flowed within time itself.1

Gérard Grisey's 'Vortex Temporum', performed by Ensemble Recherche, 1995.

Gérard Grisey’s Vortex Temporum from 1996 achieves what its title suggests: it plunges, formulaically, into a temporal black hole. Typical of what new music jargon labels “spectralism,” Grisey’s music investigates the harmonic series, the overtones that make up musical notes. Spectralism studies the fact that any individual note played on a particular instrument can be broken down into smaller and more exact components. Like time, reduced from milliseconds to microseconds to nanoseconds, a low E explodes infinitely.

In 2013, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker created Vortex Temporum to Grisey’s 1996 score. Emulating the microscopic precision of spectralism, De Keersmaeker and her dance company Rosas generated a series of movements to accompany each bar of the music, played by the Ictus Ensemble. The rigorous chorographical process focused on the variations possible between vertical and horizontal body positions. Zooming into the infinitudes between the erect and the prostrate, De Keersmaeker has produced an impenetrable language of focalized movement. Vortex Temporum made its United States premiere at BAM last weekend, now three years after its conception. Through concrete demonstrations of time and blurring of artistic genres, De Keersmaeker has presented us with a contemporary paragone. Is it dance or music that tells time best? And what do they accomplish that the visual arts cannot?

 Jean-Luc Plouvier, Chryssi Dimitriou, Dirk Descheemaeker, Igor Semenoff, Jeroen Robbrecht, and Geert De Bièvre. Photo by Robert Altman.

Jean-Luc Plouvier, Chryssi Dimitriou, Dirk Descheemaeker, Igor Semenoff, Jeroen Robbrecht, and Geert De Bièvre. Photo by Robert Altman.

The performance began with music alone. The Ictus musicians, in casual clothing, sat in a semicircle of chairs, facing the audience. Grisey’s Vortex Temporum filled the theater, destabilizing expectations of both music and sound. The agile arms and jolting heads of the musicians activated the instruments. Flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, and piano gradually lost their predictability, morphing into erratic performers themselves. This first phase stopped suddenly. All of the musicians except for the pianist left the stage, and the dancers walked out to retrieve the instruments patiently waiting on their stands.

Then, the paragone grew more literal. As the pianist (Jean-Luc Plouvier) continued to play, one of the Rosas dancers (Carlos Garbin) joined him on stage, mirroring each note corporally. Garbin came closer and closer to Plouvier, until he even sat with him on the piano stool, slamming the keys. The audience laughed—but what was the source of this frustration between dancer and pianist? They seemed to have realized that neither performer could outshine the other. There was no star and no supporting role. Soon after, all of the Rosas dancers came out, dancing without any music. The silence was charged. Sneakers squeaked and limbs slid and reached, creating symphonies of arcs and angles.

 Jean-Luc Plouvier, Chryssi Dimitriou, Dirk Descheemaeker, Igor Semenoff, Jeroen Robbrecht, and Geert De Bièvre. Photo by Robert Altman.

Vortex Temporum. Photo by Robert Altman.

In the next and final section of Vortex Temporum, Rosas and Ictus finally took the stage together. It became clear that each of the dancers corresponded to an instrument; their movements merged with Grisey’s spiraling acoustics. Dressed in all black, they began to look like notes on sheet music—sometimes packed tightly together, sometimes far apart, with silence spreading between them. The details of the choreography were as calculated as a twinkle in the painted eye of a Madonna, yet they refused to dry and fade as time passed. Rather, they kept catching new light from every angle. At times, a languid air swept over the audience, lulling us into a slow calm as we watched these bodies ticking like clocks. At the end of the performance, the lights went out, but the small light illuminating the sheet music on the conductor’s music stand remained. From a distance, the bright rectangle of light made the papers look blank—as if there had been no music at all, only time.

The passing moments of Vortex Temporum do not slip through our fingers—they draw themselves into our memory, like the intersecting chalk circles drawn on the stage. When Ictus played alone, they held the dancers’ time. When Rosas danced alone, they held the musicians’ time. And together, they nearly neutralized each other in their verisimilitude. Somehow a violin screeching toward its highest notes was no different than a dancer running around the stage, seeming to herd the other performers into clusters. De Keersmaeker thus materializes music while the music dematerializes her dancers. Has she perhaps found a way to show time and all of its associations—tapping into a tangible mode of representation that neither painting nor sculpture can reach?

This question was put to the test last year at WIELS Contemporary Art Centre in Brussels, where Rosas and Ictus became moving masterpieces for nine weeks in Work/Travail/Arbeid, a performance-as- exhibition. Dance and music stepped into the white-walled museum, a realm usually reserved for painting and sculpture. For Work/Travail/Arbeid, De Keersmaeker re-conceptualized Vortex Temporum, so that it would cross between galleries, interrupt the normal flow of gallery traffic, and endure, even when the visitors left. She used the same choreography and music as Vortex Temporum, but dilated the chalk circles drawn on the floor and used them to enclose columns and museumgoers. Children ran alongside the performers. Adults backed away from the piano as it was pushed slowly around the space. Instruments and pounding footsteps could be heard in the adjacent galleries, forcing visitors to decide where to stand, where to go next.

De Keersmaeker’s 'Work/Travail/Arbeid', a reconceptualization of 'Vortex Temporum' for the museum.

At WIELS, the dancers, dressed in white, functioned as brightly lit sculptures that refused to settle into stillness. It was more difficult to match each dancer with a corresponding instrument. And, most importantly, every visitor saw something different. Such radical inconsistency is startling in a museum—where usually one expects to approach the art, not to have the art approach them.

In the words of Yvonne Rainer, “Dance is hard to see.”2 It is tangible, yet always disappearing. While dancers may be objects in motion, their movements are as ephemeral as music. In this way, dance is a merging of corporeality and duration, whether that duration is silent or instrumental. By confusing the distinctions between the arts, De Keersmaeker gives us time that we can feel and motion that we can hear. In so doing, she inserts dance, lived human motion, in the mysterious gap between visual art and music. Grisey’s Vortex Temporum acts as time itself, but De Keersmaeker has offered a new entryway, allowing us to be immersed in the transience of Grisey’s score, but to hold on to it once it is gone. She thus proves that dance can do what painting and sculpture never could—capture time without freezing it.

1. Leonardo Da Vinci, “Contrast, Harmony, and Reflexes,” in A Treatise On Painting (London: George Bell & Sons, 1877), 108-9.

2. Carrie Lambert-Beaty, Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s (Cambridge, Mass., London, England: The MIT Press, 2008), 1.

This review of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's Vortex Temporum is from the work's NYC premiere at BAM, running October 14-15, 2016, as part of the annual Next Wave Festival. Cover photos by Robert Altman.


Angela Brown is an artist and writer from Yonkers, NY.