still from the film Rosas Danst Rosas, directed by Stefaan Decostere
These days everyone in my life seems to have an obsession: wormeries, reusable tissues, queer Tinder bios in rural England. I like to think quarantine absolves us of the stigma that often accompanied obsession in the pre-pandemic world—gone is the calculation of “I-must-not-seem-crazy” that once colored any expression of fixation. An interview with the poet Sabrina Orah Mark reminded me of Lucie Brock-Broido’s line: “Obsession helps me up the stairs at night.” It made me want to own what propels me, confined, from room to room. And it made me want to know how larger communities, though physically restricted, can get past the top of the stairs and back home to each other.
In 1997, Belgian filmmaker Thierry De Mey arrived at the former technical school of architect Henry Van de Velde in Leuven to address this question literally. The building’s sharp angles, interior windows, and wide-open rectangles of floor space create a climate of restraint, of discipline, of being watched. (I once heard an inaccurate rumor that this building had once housed a psychiatric hospital. I believed it.) Along with De Mey arrived a group of dancers led by the Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. Their task: move de Keersmaeker’s 1983 evening-length dance piece Rosas Danst Rosas from stage to film, framed by the walls of Van de Velde’s school.
But changing the frame of this piece from curtains to walls required a reckoning with two features that stage pieces so often seek to transcend: space and time. When the dancers arrived in Leuven in 1997, the defined spaces of the technical school framed their movements, De Mey’s camera tracking along. Time ticked by: this filming was the final event to take place in the building, scheduled for complete renovation immediately afterwards.
Time was running out in other ways, too. De Mey describes the ideal experience of the musical score: “I know, at my first breath, at the first beat, I know my time is limited and that it’s coming to an end.” The score, composed by De Mey and Peter Vermeersch, takes a “maximalist” approach, “getting the maximum out of the minimum” in terms of sound and creating the environment for the “glorification of the body, in resistance to mathematicisation.” Even the members of the cast themselves mark time: the film includes every dancer who had ever worked with it onstage since its origins 17 years earlier.
So a deep awareness of space and time confines these dancers—but the choreographic structure, the movement itself, provides the strongest restraining force. A documentary for the Belgian television program Het Gerucht (newly accessible for free during the quarantine) chronicles the development of this structure. My favorite scene shows de Keersmaeker and her original cast hovered over a table. From the outside, their behavior is totally indecipherable, the quintessential alignment of obsession with madness. We hear their casual comments (translated from French): “Oh, where are we now?” “Oh, now this.” The camera zooms in to reveal a lined chart of the studio floor in sections. The dancers begin to chant a rhythm from De Mey’s score (“DUH duh duh DUH duh DUH duh”), pushing pieces of paper with their initials around the chart in time. These are the patterns in which they will move, the routines they will follow, during the piece. Giggling, they rehearse their confinements together.
Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker was just 23 when she choreographed Rosas danst Rosas. She chose the movements because she “liked” them. I love this statement’s brazen distance from demand. It’s a resistance to creative productivity before that resistance was a quarantine conversation topic.
I seem hypocritical, I know, by writing this. But I write compulsively when I should be asleep; I feel more driven by obsession than production. I want this obsession to connect me with de Keersmaeker. Maybe, what “help[ed her] up the stairs at night” were the patterns and structures in Rosas danst Rosas. What helps me up the stairs at night is the knowledge that Rosas danst Rosas is waiting for me, a mirror.
The piece’s title translates to “Roses dance Roses,” meaning that the company members of Rosas dance themselves over the course of the piece. Time passes, movements repeat, and the routines begin to look inhabited, varied, vastly different from person to person. In the documentary for Het Gerucht, a contemplative, impossibly young de Keersmaeker tells the camera: “I’m convinced that because of this rigid and well-defined structure, that has a detached character, it helps the warmth and the beauty, I mean the beauty of movement, to surface. It enhances its intrinsic values.” It’s true: the bodies, habituated to fixed movement vocabularies, take on the qualities of lived-in spaces: similar structures, wild variety in the details. The dancers maintain regular distances (albeit not always six feet) between themselves at all times. No physical contact—lifting, striking, holding—of its contemporaries.
The Rosas danst Rosas film opens with shots of individual women walking purposefully through the empty building, rain beating against the windows. It brings to mind the video of Fort Greene Park that accompanied dance critic Gia Kourlas’ recent article about “the choreography of the streets” during a pandemic. She notes the sense of responsibility inherent in collective spatial awareness: “movement has morals and consequences.” In Rosas, the individuals become a collective when a shared pause, and a coordinated fall, unite them, their breath suddenly synchronous.
But within this synchronicity there are, as actress Noémie Merlant reminds us, “one thousand ways to do a breath.”
And Lucie Brock-Broido again: “The Breath is as much of Mob as I can master, love.”
There is an unavoidable sensuality in the becoming of four individuals into individuals, at the same time. The repetition and geometry of Rosas attunes the eye to idiosyncracies in breath, half-smiles, hair, the unsticking of fingertips from floor or chin. If, as Aracelis Girmay writes, “This is the only kingdom. / The kingdom of touching; / the touches of the disappearing, things,” Rosas danst Rosas is proof. Sometimes it’s sensual enough to smooth your own hair, move your own shirt from your shoulder and put it back. To trace your boundaries as the moment disappears.
I write with an awareness of the way my present at-home lifestyle follows a path paved for me by those for whom staying home is a physical necessity. In a concrete, non-performative way, the writing of Esmé Weijun Wang, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, and others shows that our quotidian movements and physical particularities are inextricably linked with our identities and ways of thinking, whether or not anyone else is there as witness.
Gia Kourlas also makes the point that right now, physical awareness in public spaces is “the difference between health and sickness, life and death. Inside we’re alone.” And I wonder about that last statement, peering inside the doors of the Rosas film, through the lens of disability activists. What are the consequences of aloneness if we leave the body at the door?
And so I join de Keersmaeker in an obsession with the ways confinement directs attention back to the body as a companion, and in this obsession I find another kind of community, the internet full of people from across the world posting their own versions of the famous chair scene from Rosas danst Rosas. I watch these people in their bedrooms and hallways and balconies, and I wonder about this strange collective. I wonder what else is possible, in this world of noticing we’ve created together.
Here I turn to the narrator of Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You:
“That’s all care is, I thought, it’s just looking at a thing long enough, why should it be a question of scale? This seemed like a hopeful thought at first, but then it’s hard to look at things, or to look at them truly, and we can’t look at many at once, and it’s so easy to look away.”
The limitations in and around Rosas danst Rosas force us to look, and so they build our capacities to care: Look at how they clasp their hands between their legs. Now look again. The dancers carry hints of movements past with them to future scenes. They dance themselves over and over again, the real effects of time audible and visible in breath and sweat.
I realize now that my obsession isn’t really with Rosas danst Rosas, but with the kind of community it makes possible—a community that cares enough to look at the accumulation of the ordinary. Maybe what gets me up the stairs at night is just that: getting up the stairs. My femur bone lifts and rotates in my hip socket, and I notice. I repeat the movement. I live into this movement, and all my movements, over time, and they change. Gradually, alone, I build myself. And whether or not they know it, my neighbors are building themselves, and my friends, my family. I want this for them: that they look long enough at their body-homes. In movement is our interdependence. In movement is our freedom.
Hannah Fenster is a writer, educator, and performer based in Baltimore, Maryland, where she teaches at Goucher College. Her poetry has appeared in LUMINA and The Shallow Ends. She is a member of a DIY immersive theatre collective and is collaborating on a movement-based video project. You can find her on Twitter at @hannahfenster93.