Among creators of contemporary dance whose work is based in spectacle and visual richness, a group of choreographers can be distinguished who focus exclusively on unusual physical dance, often full of risk, where the body bursts with tension and primordial energy. Among this group the most renowned creator is no doubt Wim Vandekeybus, founder of Ultima Vez, which is based in Brussels and whose productions have become a symbol of the physical approach to contemporary dance. Vandekeybus’ choreographic journey, however, was very untypical. He was born in 1963 in the small town of Herenthout in Belgium. As the son of a veterinarian he spent his childhood watching animals, which had an influence on his imagination. He discovered dance only late in life, at a time when he was getting fed up with the study of psychology and began focussing on theatre. The first impulse was a workshop with director Paul Peyskensen, who together with Jan Decorte, Josse de Pauw and the members of Maatschappij Discordia belonged to a wave of Flemish theatre innovators in the 1980s. All of these artists followed in the footsteps of Brechtian theatre in the sense that they rejected theatrical illusion, psychology and realism in the name of searching for new ways of building a production and acting.
Vandekeybus embarked on the same journey. He quit the study of psychology in order to focus on his theatre and dance interests. He learned various techniques – from classical dance to tango – while also studying photography and film, which had a major influence on his later work. From the very start of his career he understood that he wanted to engage in uncompromising language of the body and in 1986 together with a group of inexperienced but enthusiastic dancers started in Madrid to work on his first production What the Body Does Not Remember, which premiered a year later.
This first work already revealed the choreographer’s potential, uncovering a fascinating style based on three pillars: strength, speed and risk. Ten dancers (including Vandekeybus himself) danced as though their lives depended on it. Many situations burned in one’s memory, like the flying bricks which the dancers hurled and caught above their heads or their bodies falling through the air and caught at a run by their partners. The productions showed moments when the body loses control over itself – as in the moment before an accident – the dangerous choreography requiring precise composition and technique. Vandekeybus invited the audience to witness extreme states, of course with the use of well-known composition approaches (such as repetition), so typical for the masters of Flemish dance, Fabra and De Keersmaeker, to which he added his own original flavour thanks to the unusual speed and physicality of the performance. Animal energy breathed from the stage, which roused and captivated the audience.
Their next productions, Les porteuses de mauvaises noevelles and The Wight of Hand, were again physically challenging pieces, in which an important role was played by the interconnection of dance and music. The body here took precedence and all of the themes were explored from its perspective. Both productions from the end of the 80s received deserved praise and Vandekeybus, who has a great gift for keeping abreast of trends, decided to use his experiences with choreography in film. This did not mean simply recording fragments of productions, however, but the creation of an independent production that demonstrated his ability to use the medium of film. The film was called Roseland (1990), which he created in collaboration with video artist Walter Verdin and photographer Octavio Iturbe. Thanks to this combination of talent the film was a great success, because it demonstrated how suggestive dance could be in the film form. Vandekeyubus’ other films (La Mentira, In Spite of Wishing and Wanting) show how perfectly he knew how to use this potential. The love for film media led to Her Body Doesn’t Fit Her Soul, where the film projections function as autonomous components of the performance, whose theme was perception of the senses. Here Vandekeybus surprised audiences with the high degree of tenderness, but also the pair of unseen actors. This work demonstrated how the director combines spectacular dance with acting passages, suggestive scenography, lighting effects and ferocious music.
Although Vandekeybus never abandoned his love for wildly dynamic movement and sequences full of risk, his later productions became increasingly complex, both dramaturgically and visually. The original rawness was transformed into precisely designed forms and Ultima Vez also underwent a similar transformation. At first this was also direct and flamboyant, but later became increasingly poetic and open (In Spite of Wishing and Wanting, Scratching the Inner Fields, Blush, Spiegel).
In several of Vandekeybus’ latest works, which do not have much in common with the original physicality, existential gloom contrasts with dance pieces by young dancers, as in nieuwZwart. The energy and style of the performance has changed; the new generation of dancers no longer have to risk their lives on stage, because the choreographer’s language has grown into other forms, which nevertheless sometimes lack the varied range of colours from the famous works of the 80s and 90s.
One thing is clear: Vandekeybus is at a turning point in his work. But as long as he continues to create movement and directorial qualities in the new productions, it will be possible without doubt to call him a genius.