‘Extraordinarily innovative dance piece’ tours again: Wim Vandekeybus revives his debut ‘What the body does not remember’
Was it the one with the frozen shirt? No, it was the one with the small table, I realized, the moment the lights went on over What the body does not remember, 25 years after I had first seen it. All along the evening (at KVS, Brussels) it was funny to notice what my mind hád and had nót remembered. But anyway: here it is again, the first piece by Belgian choreographer Wim Vandekeybus, touring with a new cast. ‘An extraordinarily innovative dance piece’, The New York Times wrote back in ’87 (original review here). A year later the powerful performance would be rewarded with a Bessie Award.
1987. By that time Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker had made her mark on the international dance scene, with Fase (1982), Rosas danst Rosas (1983) and Elena’s Aria (1984). Jan Fabre had caused some controversy with This is theatre like it was to be expected and foreseen (1982) and Power of theatrical madness (1984). In that production Vandekeybus made his debut as an actor, after which he – then 24- decided to start his own company: Ultima Vez.
‘After Fabre I wanted to do a performance of my own, but no one believed I would be able to manage it’, he writes on his website. ‘It was a really tough and lonely period.’ But his first production What the body does not remember was an immediate success on the international circuit. It was shown in Milan, Hamburg, Salzburg, Lisbon and New York and was the beginning of a succesful career for the Flemish choreographer.
Seeing it again after 25 years made me realize a few things. First of all: I had forgotten how heavily it relies on that musical score by Thierry De Mey and Peter Vermeersch (the composers of the score for De Keersmaeker’s Rosas danst Rosas), and played by Belgian cult band Maximalist!. It really is the core of this performance.
Secondly: I had forgotten how fragmentary it was as a performance. What the body does not remember is constituted of several distinct scenes (the one with the table, the one with the bricks, the one with the towels…), and not all those scenes are equally strong.
And thirdly – being familiar with the body of work Vandekeybus has created afterwards – it was amusing to see how several of the elements that would become his trademarks (plus some that would sometimes lead him in the wrong directions) are already present in this debut.
Did it stand the test of time? Without any doubt. What the body does not remember, with its combination of riveting, rhythmic music and energetic, fearless dance, still is a thrilling performance, although some scenes did stand that test of time better than others (as a debut it is not without its flaws). I can imagine that some of today’s audiences might be asking what the fuss is about, since that typical Vandekeybus element of wildness is present in the work of several choreographers nowadays. But one has to remember that the world was much smaller back then and not that many people were used to seeing all this stamping and falling.
One little detail. ‘What the body does not remember could be performed only by a collective on a single wave length’, the NYT wrote back then. I had the feeling, during the performance I saw, a couple of days after the premiere, that the dancers weren’t on that same wave length yet. Was it my memory playing tricks once again? I had the feeling that back then, the cast was more edgy. Or was that an unimitable, audacious sense of adventure permeating their moves? It’s clear that gradually the new cast will become better at performing this piece.
‘After the Germans, the French and the Japanese, the newest group epitomizing the extraordinary worldwide spurt in dance innovation comes from Belgium, a country that has generally had little impact upon dance history’, The New York Times wrote in 1987 (article here). Little impact? What the body does not remember is here to remember us that things have changed since then. And if you don’t agree, then call Beyoncé, and ask her about Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
PS: Keep an eye on that tour schedule because Vandekeybus plans to perform What the body does not remember later on also with the music played live.