Constructing identities: the case of 'the Flemish dance wave'


Europe Dancing 1 Jan 2000English

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During the 1980s, several Flemish theatre directors and choreographers achieved international success and artistic recognition. Almost unanimously, critics praised the productions of, for example, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker (Rosas), Jan Fabre and Wim Vandekeybus (for brief sketches of the careers of these choreographers, see Van Kerkhoven and Laermans 1997; De Brabandere 1997; Jans 1997). More than one critic even became rapidly convinced that these choreographers were only singular representatives of a broader 'Flemish dance wave' (Laermans and Gielen 1997,1999). Festival brochures and announcements also made use again and again of this expression, thus reinforcing the impression that something very important was going on in Flanders. Interestingly, Flanders, the Dutch-speaking province of Belgium, was more than once confused with Belgium as a whole. This is ironic considering that since 1980 Flanders and the French-speaking Walloon province have had autonomous governments within a federal Belgium state. These regional governments are, among other things, fully responsible for cultural matters and during the 1980s this resulted in distinct cultural policies. In the homeland of the new dance stars, the very same idiom acquired a broader meaning. During the previous decade, Flanders had been the breeding ground of a brand new generation of talented choreographers. Additionally, the international breakthrough of De Keersmaeker and Fabre went hand in hand with a sudden rise in the interest in contemporary dance. A new, relatively young public expressed its appetite for 'everything except ballet' and was rapidly served by contemporaries who set up dance festivals, such as the well-known Klapstuk (Leuven), and arts centres devoted to contemporary dance, avant-garde theatre and 'new music' (for a general overview, see Lambrechts, Van Kerkhoven and Verstockt 1996; see also Bauwens 1992, on the history of the new arts centres).

Hereafter, we present a selective picture of 'the Flemish dance wave' in Flanders, including its 1990s aftermath. Although we shall offer some background information, our interest is not primarily historical. Rather, we want to show how the belief in a distinctive Flemish 'dance identity' could arise (see, especially, Laermans and Gielen 1998a). At the same time, our essay - an extended in-depth argumentation is of course not possible here1 - focuses on the ways different choreographers actively constructed different individual artistic identities.

The Weight of the Ballet Tradition

Around 1980, not much modern or postmodern dance could be seen in Flanders (see Lambrechts, Van Kerkhoven and Verstockt 1996; this overview is our primary source of information for this paragraph). That year, the then 20-year-old Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker presented her first production, Asch, 'a theatre project for a dancer and an actor', in a small venue in Brussels. The performance was only shown a couple of times and did not get much attention in the press (Van Kerkhoven and Laermans 1997). For that matter, De Keersmaeker was not the only Flemish artist who tried to start up a career within the field of contemporary dance. Thus, the now forgotten, An Slootmaekers regularly performed at home and abroad. The fact that she and other white ravens were scarcely noticed, had much to do with the lack of a professional distribution system. Only such an apparatus, as the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1992) rightly stresses, can draw in a legitimate way a clear line between amateurs and professional artists within a highly insecure artistic field. In a word, contemporary dance was not yet institutionalized in Flanders by the time De Keersmaeker showed her first production. At the beginning of the 1980s, this aesthetic 'genre' was neither an autonomous field of cultural production (Bourdieu 1992), nor an independent subsystem (Luhmann 1995; cf. Laermans 1997).

In more than one way, this situation was strengthened by the fact that only a few foreign contemporary dance productions did reach Flanders (including its most important urban centre, bilingual Brussels, which is, paradoxically, situated in the heart of Flanders). It is therefore no exaggeration to say that around 1980, the ballet tradition still dominated the field of professional theatre dance in Flanders. Two companies set the tone, the Royal Ballet of Flanders (Antwerp) and the Ballet of the Twentieth Century (Brussels), at that time still directed by the legendary Maurice Béjart. The latter was also the founder and artistic director of the international Mudra dance school, which proved to be a real seedbed of artistic talent (among its students were De Keersmaeker, Michele Anne De Mey, Fumyo Ikeda and Jose Besprosvany). As a matter of fact, Béjart was the leading figure within the field of Belgian and Flemish dance alike. Whereas the Royal Ballet of Flanders concentrated on virtuoso performances of classics, Béjart had developed his own modern version of ballet. By the beginning of the 1980s, Béjart was of course no longer the leading international choreographer he once was. But he still occupied the centre of the Flemish and Belgian dance field, not in the least because of his direct affiliation with the prestigious opera house De Munt/La Monnaie, where he was choreographer-in-residence.

As said, the quasi-monopoly of the ballet tradition was reinforced by the irregular presentation of the work of foreign choreographers working within the field of contemporary dance. The Royal Ballet of Flanders did, now and then, invite guest choreographers, provided they stayed in line with the tradition of classical ballet. Béjart whose artistic narcissism is documented by many anecdotes, had a much more restrictive policy: only on rare occasions did he show the work of foreign choreographers in 'his' house. In a word, both the Royal Ballet of Flanders and Béjart always used their position of artistic gatekeeper between Flanders and 'the rest of the world' with a view to their own artistic status. This monopolistic strategy proved to be quite successful, at least seen from their point of view. Thus, the American traditions of modern and postmodern dance made no headway in Flanders. All in all, the region lived in a situation of splendid isolation. Moreover the different government bodies that were responsible for financing cultural initiatives did not show any will to change the state of affairs created by the Royal Ballet of Flanders and Béjart's Ballet of the Twentieth Century. Indeed, at the beginning of the 1980s, classical and modern ballet were the only subsidized dance genres (for figures, see Laermans and Gielen 1998b). One may even say that within the field of dance, ballet was the official genre. Evidently, this policy again strengthened the more general institutional generic and taste monopoly of ballet.

Given this situation, it was no accident that the ballet tradition was a negative point of reference for the new generation of choreographers. The institutional weight of the ballet genre in Flanders (and in Belgium), however, also created a specific problem for every innovator. For how could she or he be recognized - in both the figurative and literal senses of the word - as a professional dance artist? Was the choreographer who transgressed the ballet canon not 'just doing something'? As a matter of fact, more than one dance critic, especially those who were very familiar with balletic decorum, did raise this very question when reviewing the first dance productions of, for instance, Jan Fabre. The impression of sheer amateurism seemed all the more plausible because of the ostensible lack of any education in dance of Jan Fabre, Marc Vanrunxt, Alain Platel or Wim Vandekeybus. In the light of this absence of educational capital, to suspect the innovators ot not knowing their job' was far from unsound. This accusation of amateurism was all the more plausible because of the lack of a professional distribution network tor contemporary dance. For, at least in their very early years, the newcomers within the field of Flemish dance were not backed by an organizational framework that could lend an aura of professionalism to their work.

Distinctive Appropriations: the Case of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker

In the light of the institutional hegemony of the ballet tradition, choreographers such as Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Jan Fabre developed a very specific strategy in order to legitimize their first productions. More particularly, they referred, in a selective way, to artistic forms and norms that were already validated abroad. Through this selective appropriation of the international dance canon, their work identified itself as part of a broader, already established artistic framework. One may thus speak of an operation of auto-legitimization via 'intertextualization', which was at the same time a strategy of'glocalization': international standards were used in order to counter a local hegemony. Of course, professional artists always work within a predefined context of acknowledged problems and shared solutions. As Becker writes:

“They define the problems of their art similarly and agree on the criteria for an acceptable solution. They know the history of previous attempts to solve those problems, or some of it, and the new problems those attempts generated. They know the history of work like theirs, so that they, their support personnel, and their audiences can understand what they have attempted and how and to what degree it works.”

Nevertheless, within the Flemish context, taking up the international tradition of contemporary dance as the principal frame of reference was not just an evident artistic stance. During the first half of the 1980s, it also proved to be a very efficient means to counter the then existing dominance of the ballet tradition and to define one's work as a professional contribution to an already recognized artistic genre or style.

The initial career of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker is an exemplary illustration of this mechanism of auto-legitimization (see also Van Kerkhoven and Laermans 1997). After her first production, Asch, De Keersmaeker went to New York, where she studied at The Tisch School of the Arts. During this 'study leave', De Keersmaeker choreographed two of the four parts that make up Fase: Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich, presented in 1982. This duet was an instant hit in Flanders and The Netherlands, and at international festivals such as the London Dance Umbrella. As its subtitle already indicates, die choreography is a highly original appropriation of American minimal dance as developed by, for instance, Lucinda Childs (the genre that Sally Banes refers to as 'analytic postmodern dance'; see Banes 1987: xiii-xxxix; Banes 1994: 301-10). This overt reference to a 'style' that the international dance community had already acknowledged, transformed Fase into a fait accompli within the Flemish context: only uninformed 'provincials' could deny its status as a professional work of art. Indeed, not unlike the performative power of quotations in scientific articles, the references to American minimal dance implicitly legitimized Fase in a very strong way. Those Flemish critics who contested the artistic value of this choreography also questioned an international standard, thus risking the accusation of not knowing what was going on within the field of contemporary dance. And, if they did, they had to defend their opinion not only against the young Flemish public that embraced Fase, but indirectly also against the international dance community. In a word, by referring to an already recognized 'style', Fase created for itself a zone of protection, consisting of the artistic prestige or symbolic capital (Bourdieu 1992) that surrounded American minimal dance. Or, to use one of the leading ideas of Bruno Latour's sociology of science: Fase succeeded in making a strong link with 'uncontested (aesthetic) facts', thus strengthening its own claim to recognition (Latour 1987).

With its overt references to American minimal dance in Fase and its direct successor, Rosas danst Rosas (1983), De Keersmaeker did, of course, run the risk of being accused of imitation and copying. It was therefore crucial that both productions not only repeated an already existing dance idiom but also distinguished themselves from its foreign example. In this respect, the movement material proved to be pivotal. De Keersmaeker combined repetitive patterns with daily gestures and actions, like sitting on a chair, falling on the ground, or brushing one's hair out of one's face. Thus, Fase and Rosas danst Rosas provided minimal dance with a highly specific content. Both choreographies avoided the analytic emptiness of minimalism because they confronted its structural formalism with a semantically very rich movement material (Van Kerkhoven 1984; Van Kerkhoven and Laermans 1997: 9-12). In this way, De Keersmaeker also constructed for herself a distinctive choreographic identity that combined a stress on structures with emotionalism. Actually, this identity was the outcome of the by now wellknown interplay between repetition (or similarity) and difference that is probably constitutive of every form of identification (see, inter alia, Deleuze 1969).

The construction of contemporary dance as an autonomous category during the 1980s: from Fabre to Etcetera

In his early work, Jan Fabre followed a comparable strategy of artistic legitimation and identity construction. 'Distinctive appropriation' also characterized successful productions like The Power of Theatrical Madness (1984}. More particularly, Fabre excelled in confronting the tradition of performance art, as developed within the context of the fine arts, with the frame of conventional theatre and dance (see Laermans 1993; De Brabandere 1997). In his choreographies, such as Das Glas im Kopfwird vom Glas: The Dance Sections (1987), this overt intertextual layer was re-articulated: the works of Balanchine and especially William Forsythe became the main reference points. It was therefore appropriate, if rather ironic, that Forsythe invited Fabre to create a choreography for the Ballett Frankfurt, The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1990).

Fabre's choreographic work was - and still is - very critical of the ballet tradition. Thus, in The Dance Sections, the dancers only made elementary ballet movements, which were executed very slowly and with the hands bound together in a pair of ballet shoes. The overall allegorical message was quite obvious and has been spelled out in detail by Emil Hrvatin in his in-depth study of Fabre's work (Hrvatin 1994; cf. Laermans 1996). Indeed, Fabre considers ballet to be first and foremost a disciplinary machine that imprisons the body and restricts physical movement. Within the context of Flanders, where the ballet tradition was for a long time hegemonic, this message was understood. Fabre reiterated his harsh critique of ballet language in the already mentioned work for the Ballett Frankfurt, in the spectacular Da un’altra faccia del tempo (1993), and in his minimalistic choreography for Het Nationale Ballet of The Netherlands, Quando la terra si rimette in movimento (1995). He thus acquired - and probably deserves - the nickname of'the enfant terrible of dance'. Actually, this laconic identification points to a very crucial operation in the way Fabre has 'fabricated' for himself a distinctive artistic identity. For, in his choreographies, positive allusions to Forsythe's work are combined with overt negative references to all those productions that uncritically reproduce the ballet canon. We may speak here of a prime example of identity construction through negative self-definition: one affirms one's personal artistic identity via an overt dis-identification with an already existing genre.

As said, to distinguish oneself in an aggressive way from the ballet tradition was far from evident within the Flemish context. At the same time, this instance of negative self-definition became rapidly dominant in the new discourse on dance that accompanied the breakthrough of De Keersmaeker, Fabre, Vanrunxt and other innovators in Flanders. Without doubt, the most important discursive agent was the bimonthly magazine Etcetera. This publication was set up in 1983 by Johan Wambacq and Hugo de Greef, then director of the Brussels Kaaitheaterfestival, which together with Klapstuk (Leuven) was for a long time the most important promoter of 'the Flemish dance wave'. It is thus no wonder that the editorial board of Etcetera affiliated itself, without much reservation, to the new generation of Flemish choreographers. As a matter of fact, this still existing magazine was throughout the 1980s the quasi-official mouthpiece of all the newcomers within the fields of both dance and theatre.

In no time at all, Etcetera developed a highly influential discourse that framed the work of a De Keersmaeker or a Fabre and the - at that time - massive introduction of the work of foreign choreographers in Flanders (such as Merce Cunningham, Lucinda Childs or representatives of German Tanztheater and Japanese butoh). Whereas, for instance, the American discussion focused on the differences between modern and postmodern dance (see, for example, Banes 1987), most contributions in Etcetera again and again invoked the expression contemporary dance. This 'master signifier' was neither clearly defined, nor given a specific aesthetic context. As a matter of fact, the notion of contemporary dance just referred to 'everything that was not ballet'. Cunningham, De Keersmaeker, Bausch, Fabre, ... it was all subsumed under the heading of contemporary dance.

Etcetera did not devote much space to the productions of the Royal Ballet of Flanders or Maurice Béjart. But where this was done, negatively coloured expressions set the tone: ballet was 'superficial', 'commercial', 'empty', 'old-fashioned', and so on. These characterizations stood in marked contrast to the description of contemporary dance as being 'honest', 'personal', 'natural', 'sound', and so on. Already these very words pointed to a more general line of argument concerning the category of contemporary dance. Indeed, the lack of an aesthetic definition of this notion was compensated by a morally loaded discourse that played off the shallowness of the ballet tradition against the authenticity of contemporary dance. We may safely assume that this primarily moral typification of the difference between ballet and contemporary dance resulted from the absence of an established tradition of reflection on twentieth-century dance. At the same time, this framework was - and to a great extent still is - very influential. As such, it not only legitimized the work of De Keersmaeker or Fabre against the ballet genre. Perhaps more important was the discursive identification of these and other choreographers as authentic artists in search of an authentic expression of... authenticity.

All in all, the contributions to Etcetera from around the mid-1980s illustrate a well-known mechanism in the production of so-called self-descriptions or discursive self-observations (see Fuchs 1992). We already implicitly mentioned this basic operation when we spoke of negative self-definition: an in-group (here, the mouthpieces of contemporary dance) always has the tendency to construct its own identity via negative references to an out-group (the ballet tradition). At the same time, many essays in Etcetera, on the work of De Keersmaeker or Fabre had a pedagogical edge. The positive allusions in their productions to American minimalism or Forsythe's deconstruction of the ballet language were thoroughly explained and interpreted. In this way, the uninformed fans of 'the Flemish dance wave' not only learned that they actually dabbled in contemporary dance; the readers were also informed about the implicit intertextuality of the productions they cherished and thus armed with arguments against all those who still spoke of 'sheer amateurism' or 'worthless dance'.

Being Cosmopolitan in Order to be 'Flemish'

According to Niklas Luhmann (1995), the arts system can be described as an autopoietic or self-(reproducing system because artistic communications then elicit aesthetic communications. The latter may negate, comment upon, or criticize the former. Seen from the point of view of systems theory, the particular form of the connection of a new artistic communication - and every work of art can be considered to be one 'compact communication' - with a previous one is not that important. Much more decisive is the fact that the arts system may be analysed as a social system that reproduces and closes itself via the mechanism of internal self-reference. Literary theory describes the same state of affairs when speaking of intertextuality or - following Bakhtin (1981)- 'the dialogic character of the work of art' (for a highly influential combination of both notions, see Kristeva 1966). Our interpretation of the initial phase of 'the Flemish dance wave' gives a specific twist to these theoretical insights. For notwithstanding the principal international nature of the arts system, regional or national differences are still of great importance. More particularly, intertextual references to a transnational 'art world' (Becker 1982), such as the contemporary dance community, can be used strategically within a specific regional or national context in order to guarantee a minimal amount of symbolic capital (Bourdieu 1992) or artistic and professional esteem. This specific form of a 'global-local nexus', thus we argued, proved to be very efficient in the initial take-off of the so-called Flemish dance wave. But was it enough to legitimate the aesthetic qualities of the work of the newcomers?

In our view, the crucial link in the success story of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Jan Fabre, Wim Vandekeybus or - more recently - Alain Platel was the powerful combination of selective references to internationally acknowledged 'models' or 'styles' with an international recognition as original choreographers by leading festivals and foreign critics. The latter was a pivotal argument in the struggle against the long-standing dominance of the ballet tradition in Flanders, especially around the mid- 1980s (see also Laermans and Gielen 1997). For only the symbolic capital imported from abroad could compensate the then existing relative absence of a strictly Flemish validation (as we said, only the bimonthly magazine Etcetera fully backed the newcomers within the field of Flemish dance). Besides, not only the needs of a difficult-to-discuss artistic esteem pushed De Keersmaeker or Fabre in the direction of an international career. Their lack of sufficient financial means was another motive. As we already said, the dance policy of the Flemish government had 'officialized' the artificially reproduced monopoly of the Royal Ballet of Flanders and Béjart's Ballet of the Twentieth Century. This situation would only gradually change during the 1980s (see Laermans and Gielen 1998b). Thus, for example, Rosas, the company of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, only received the paltry sum of 1.5 million Belgian francs (BF) in 1984. In 1985 and 1986, the same company obtained 2 million BF, and this notwithstanding the international success of Rosas danst Rosas. In 1987, this sum was doubled. Two years later, De Keersmaeker sounded the alarm: if the foreseen subsidy of 5.1 million BF did not increase, Rosas would consider leaving Flanders. This threat proved to be successful: during the following years, De Keersmaeker's company received 13 million BF from the Flemish government (Van Kerkhoven and Laermans 1997: 33-5). But she and other choreographers still had to wait until 1993 for a new decree on the performing arts that recognized contemporary dance as an autonomous genre. Therefore, during the 1980s, Flemish choreographers who were not working within the ballet tradition had continually to look for foreign co-producers in order to finance their productions. Thus, the work of Jan Fabre was only made possible thanks to the solid cooperation between the Brussels Kaaitheaterfestival and Theater am Turm in Frankfurt.

In the making of symbolic capital (Bourdieu 1992), some new Flemish organizations who associated themselves with the ongoing 'dance wave' developed a strategy that resembled the accumulation of artistic esteem via international affiliations. International festivals such as the Brussels Kaaitheaterfestival (established in 1977) and the Leuven-based Klapstuk (started up as a dance festival in 1983) showed foreign 'dance stars' (such as Merce Cunningham, Lucinda Childs, Trisha Brown) together with upcoming Flemish talents. In this way, they implicitly fulfilled the role of cultural bankers (an expression we borrow from Bourdieu, 1992, who only uses it in passing). The cultural banker collects already existing symbolic capital and then redistributes it. Given the difference between international and regional artistic reputations, this can be done without any loss for the artist who 'lends' his or her symbolic capital. Thus, Kaaitheaterfestivai and Klapstuk 'borrowed' international symbolic capital from Cunningham and Childs in order to redistribute it within the Flemish dance community. In showing the work of internationally consecrated choreographers next to productions of Vanrunxt, Raeves or Platel, the latter got their share in the symbolic aura that surrounded - and still surrounds - the former.

Organizations such as Kaaitheater and Klapstuk were also highly effective in the mediation between the world of Flemish dance and 'the rest of the world'. By building up worldwide networks and making deals with important foreign theatres and festivals, they more then once paved the way for Flemish dance productions. A more particular and very important strategy was (and is) the practice of co-production. As a matter of fact, this is, more often than not, synonymous with a cartel agreement (or a so-called buyout): in exchange for a certain amount of money, the Flemish choreographer will show her or his work only in the theatre of the co-producer, and not in other festivals or theatres of the surrounding region. As we said, during the 1980s, this kind of deal was crucial for Flemish dance companies. Without the sometimes important financial contributions of foreign co-producers, they just were not able to survive. At the same time, the practice of co- production and - more generally - the anchorage in international networks via organizations such as Kaaitheater or Klapstuk, clearly indicates that an international reputation is not just the outcome of the passive process of 'being discovered'. Rather, this sort of symbolic capital was (and is) at least partially the result of an active networking and many 'backstage negotiations'. As such, it may be called a partly organizational, partly person-mediated construction in which passive and active components are inextricably intermingled.

How Flemish Was and Is 'the Flemish Dance Wave'?

As a matter of fact, not that many Flemish choreographers became connected with the international arts system. Outside Flanders, only Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Jan Fabre, Wim Vandekeybus and, more recently, Alain Platel enjoy a broad recognition as important choreographers - four names, though with some leeway, we could add Meg Stuart to this shortlist, a choreographer from New York who now works in Brussels (and regularly receives project subsidies from the Flemish goverment). These five, however, are usually about as far as Flemish and foreign dance critics or festival brochures ever get when discussing 'the Flemish dance wave'. Considerably less ink is spent over the work of lesser gods like Marc Vanrunxt, Karin Vyncke, Bert Van Gorp and Alexander Baervoets (see also the pertinent remarks on Vanrunxt's career by Van Imschoot 1997). In Flanders, this so-called mid-field of Flemish dance is measured against the work of De Keersmaeker and of Fabre, with all the consequences this entails. But this is not our point here. What interests us is that, upon closer examination, the mid- field of Flemish dance is obviously quite small: all in all, we are only talking about three to five names. All of them are choreographers with several years' experience, more than a decade in Vanrunxt's case. Flemish and, to some extent, Dutch dance critics mostly assign this group without much argument to the periphery of Flemish contemporary dance. Outside Dutch-speaking areas, they are even hardly mentioned as part of the Flemish dance wave.

We thus arrive at a central paradox: expressions such as 'the Flemish dance wave' do suggest the existence of a vital and highly diversified dance field (for what follows, see also Laermans and Gielen 1997, 1998a, 1999). In fact, about fifteen people in Flanders, at most, have the ambition to be professional choreographers within the 'genre' of contemporary dance. Of course, these artists work with one or more dancers, which increases the number of people involved. Nevertheless, this clearly does not back up the notion of 'Flemish dance wave', and the situation was not very different in the 1980s when the 'wave' rhetoric was invented. As a matter of fact, at that time, the self-aggrandizing posture that the use of the discursive construct 'Flemish dance wave' implies, could claim a specific strategic value. Indeed, by suggesting the existence of a flourishing 'dance landscape' another popular expression in the articles published in Etcetera - the mouthpieces of contemporary dance simulated a backing in their struggle for more money and official recognition by the Flemish government. With this kind of virtual politics, not only could the interest of politicians be engaged, but the 'wave' rhetoric also proved to be very efficient in dealings with foreign festival directors or critics (who then, naïvely or not, reproduced it in their brochures and articles).

Another paradox concerns the implicit assumption that 'the Flemish dance wave' has something to do with Flanders and that the associated artists share a common identity. Actually, most Flemish - in the sense of Dutch-speaking - choreographers work with foreign dancers. And yet, creations by De Keersmaeker, Fabre or Platel are assigned a regional identity with remarkable regularity. Does this mean their productions contain a specific artistic identity that is perfectly in step with the Flemish culture? To disregard for now the question of whether a homogeneous Flemish cultural identity even exists, it is striking to note the ambivalence with which dance critics or festival announcements treat the matter in the way they frequently use the designations 'Flemish' and 'Belgian' interchangeably (although this was more the case during the 1980s than in recent years). In this respect, it is also interesting to note the hybrid position taken up by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and her company Rosas. While enjoying structural subsidies from the Flemish government, Rosas is also the resident company of the national opera house De Koninklijke Muntschouwburg/Theatre Royal de la Monnaie, one of the few remaining federal Belgian cultural institutions. On top of that, the choreographer herself was recently raised to the rank of nobility by the Belgian crown.

Journalistic observations, in particular, about the so-called Flemish dance wave and its representatives often exhibit a lack of deliberation. Individual performances and entire oeuvres are often described in the same terms. Critics ignore possible differences, overemphasize similarities, and in doing so, whether explicitly or implicitly, discursively construct a distinctive Flemish artistic identity within the realm of contemporary performing arts. A few of the more ubiquitous catchwords - not to say, empty signifiers - concern the alleged visual qualities of the work of Fabre, Vandekeybus or Platel. Thus, the work of Flemish dance-makers is said to distinguish itself through its 'great visual power' or 'strongly visual character'. Another catchword is the body. Again and again, newspaper reviews and essays in Etcetera-not to mention several of the contributions in the synthetic publication Dance in Flanders (Lambrechts^ Van Kerkhoven and Verstockt 1996) - suggest that most Flemish choreographers are primarily interested in the staging of situations in which 'the authentic body' deconstructs 'the disciplined (social) body' and, at the same time, the illusionistic frame that is constitutive for all forms of performing art. Actually, this highly popular interpretation is, in more than one respect, a byproduct of the already mentioned discourse on contemporary dance that Etcetera, created during the 1980s. In direct line with this moral rather than aesthetic discourse, the notion of authenticity is once again given a prominent place.

Of course, one cannot deny the fact that some Flemish dance productions resemble each other in some respects. But these similarities do not automatically point towards a common cultural or aesthetic identity. To assume the existence of such an 'essence' is to forget the necessarily selective construction made by the reader. Indeed, to stress the similarities over the differences between artistic 'texts' is a matter of choice, a contingent reading. It is precisely this selective character of every comparison that is suppressed in an interpretation that presents the outcome of the initial selections as pointing to an always-already existing identity.

Probably the most problematic aspect of every essentialist use of notions like 'aesthetic' or 'cultural' identity in order to explain certain characteristics of a group of artworks is the negation of the evidently constructed nature of every aesthetic act (Luhmann 1995). As we tried to demonstrate above in our interpretation of the early work of De Keersmaeker and Fabre, this 'construction work' includes the production of 'auto-identifiers' through, for example, overt intertextual references to other works of art, to already established styles or (sub)genres, and so on. This results in a preferred identity or self-description that critics or public may, or may not, pick up. If not, the work of art becomes the stake of an open conflict between interpretations in which it is just one voice. Needless to say, this article is also part of the polyphonic commentary that still surrounds so-called contemporary dance in Flanders.


(1) The data and insights presented in this article are the result of the research project 'Genesis and Structure of the Field of Contemporary Dance in Flanders, 1980-1995', for which we received a two-year grant from the Fund for Scientific Research/ Flanders. In the course of 2000, a book (in Dutch) will be published in which the most important findings are summarized and interpreted from a sociological point of view.