Rhythm is a dancer: Brussels-based contemporary dance school P.A.R.T.S.

On any given day, P.A.R.T.S.’ studios-cum-classrooms are filled with dance students from Korea, Russia, France, the US and, yes, Belgium, all under the tutelage of the school’s both enigmatic and charismatic founder Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, a figure who ever since her debut in 1980, has swayed the international contemporary dance world like no other with her uninhibited explorations in movement and music. But how exactly did a Wemmel native come to influence with such strength and conviction the international contemporary dance scene, and how does P.A.R.T.S, the dance school she founded which is located in the heart of Forest / Vorst, just a stone’s throw away from WIELS, manage to churn out future talent after future talent in such a diminutive and unassuming manner?

Photographer Miles Fischler (c)

“I cannot teach anyone to dance. One learns to dance oneself. But perhaps I can give them a desire. An experience. Create a space for challenges.” These were the opening words Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker used to present the first ever programme brochure for P.A.R.T.S. in 1995, also lovingly known as the Blue Book. Largely inspired by the Austrian composer and music theorist Arnold Schönberg’s 1911 essay Problems in Teaching Art, the Book made very clear from the start that this new international dance school would not be your average institution. Indeed, Anne Teresa’s very own pedigree, having trained under the tutelage of Maurice Béjart at Brussels’ École Mudra as well as at New York City’s Tisch School of the Arts, set herself up perfectly for having a lasting impact, both as a dancer and a teacher, on the contemporary dance world. Her debut production Asch (1980) as well as her follow-up classic Fase, Four Movements to the music of Steve Reich (1982) literally turned the scene upside down. She then decided, in 1983, to establish her own dance company in Brussels, Rosas. In 1995, she opened her famed international dance school P.A.R.T.S., which stands for Performing Arts Research and Training Studios, a somewhat misleading title since it doesn’t even include the word dance, as she herself is keen to point out. “From the very onset, Rosas’ task at La Monnaie / De Munt (where the company was in residency from 1992 to 2007) was threefold: creating, developing repertoires and educating,” she explains. An evident succession from her time in the US as well as at Mudra, which ceased to exist in 1988. “The curriculum put forward was largely based on my own personal experiences as a student, as well as a dancer, choreographer and of course spectator later on. In fact, I never had any formal training in choreography – what I know today came from creating pieces on my own which I guess makes me practically self-taught.”

Although P.A.R.T.S.’ vision on choreography has evolved quite a bit since its founding over two decades ago, a number of founding principles in the curriculum have stayed put. “I’ve always had the ambition for it to be a school for movement, for dance, for contemporary dance – and not just the performing arts more generally. Contemporary dance would always remain central.” Structurally, the school operates on a three-year basis, taking in students for what it refers to as Training Cycles, running in stark contrast to the more customary year-long courses. At the moment, it counts 45 students of 26 different nationalities, with this being the youngest generation of students so far, with an average age of 19 when the cycle first began in 2016. Following the Training Cycles, students who wish to may also undertake a two-year Research Studios course. “P.A.R.T.S. has always lived by a somewhat old-fashioned model: a group of 40 people spend three years together and try to function as a community; in stark contrast to certain forms of education enacted in other places, where students can study online, or hop from one class to the other. For me, it’s all about physical presence and the intensity of working both your body and mind. I’ve come to realise that real education does exist. As such, I don’t entirely agree with the foreword in the Blue Book anymore,” Anne Teresa continues, explaining this tendency to work in cycles, as opposed to single years.

Pre-selections are organised worldwide, and each selected candidate is then invited to Brussels for one-week auditions. The current cycle was initiated after selections in the spring of 2016, with a record number of almost 1,200 candidates applying, proving that year’s selection process to be particularly taxing: “I’ll never forget it, because the day we started distributing the flyers for the auditions all over Europe was just after the Bataclan attacks took place in Paris, and Brussels was on every newspaper’s frontpage. Our timing couldn’t have been worse. Brussels was now the place to avoid in the eyes of the entire world. The last preselection in Brussels took place just a few days after the terrorist attacks in the airport and Maelbeek metro station on 22nd of March. At least 100 people cancelled their audition or couldn’t reach Brussels. The worst-case scenario possible,” according to P.A.R.T.S. deputy director Theo Van Rompay.

That being said, the current Training Cycle is still impressively mixed, counting over 20 nationalities, with one third based in Belgium or neighbouring countries, a third emanating from Europe and a third from the rest of the world. International politics generally aren’t an issue at P.A.R.T.S. – though they do aim to be accommodating, depending on global events. “For the first time ever, we also held pre-selection auditions for the current cycle in Beirut, but it was impossible for the selected candidates to get the necessary papers and visas to come to Brussels for the final audition,” Theo recalls. Overall, the dance school’s inherent international makeup is an undisputed winner for all involved, as students get to expand not only their dance skills and careers but also their general mind-frames. Leuven native Michiel Vandevelde – currently an artist in residence at Kaaitheater, working with dance and theatre production company fABULEUS, and part of Kunsthal Extra City’s core artistic team in Antwerp – is a 2012 P.A.R.T.S. alumni himself. He recounts how he was once confronted by a Latvian classmate as he was sticking a March Against NATO poster on the school walls. “What’s your problem with NATO?! They’re the ones defending us against Russia,” he said. Michiel was taken aback: “As a Belgian, I’d never considered the Eastern European position regarding this subject. Being part of a group with that many nationalities, it really makes you aware of other opinions and perspectives.”

“I never had any formal training in choreography – what I know today came from creating pieces on my own.”

P.A.R.T.S.’ morning routine starts at 8h30 sharp with an hour of yoga, followed by technical classes in ballet and contemporary dance. Basic courses in improvisation, composition, repertoire study, singing, rhythm and theatre are the essential building blocks. Added to that, a diverse array of theoretical classes – ranging from philosophy and sociology to feminist theory – offers the students the groundwork for dance perspectives and contexts. Informal and formal showings, group visits to performances, personal training and coaching then take place in the evenings. On weekends, students still have access to the studios and often continue to work on their personal or group projects.

Michiel still recalls the stark contrast between the practical and theory in their curriculum: “The morning trainings are physically very draining, so it was often hard to stay awake during the theoretical classes in the afternoon. Having said that, if you’re being taught by someone like Tino Sehgal, it’s never completely theoretical but rather theory translated into practice.” Not necessarily a sentiment shared by all the students, however. Spanish student Julia Rubies Subiros argues that the theoretical strain in the curriculum was precisely what enticed her to apply in the first place. “To me, a dancer is not just a body that’s able to execute movements. Even if you’re just performing a piece made by another choreographer, as a performer you still need to know what you’re doing and what you’re aiming for. So you need to stay informed – historically, theoretically, whatever.”

Surprisingly, most of the teachers work on a freelance basis, while none are employed permanently. A rich mix of Belgian and international educators, they don’t necessarily hold official pedagogical training, but can always offer extensive knowledge thanks to their lengthy experience as professional artists. This has resulted, in a way, to P.A.R.T.S. constructing its teacher-body similarly to the way a curator would do for an exhibition, film festival or theatre season. “Of course, there’s an evident artistic correlation between the teachers’ and Anne Teresa’s work. Still, most of the teachers are active as artists in their own rights. Because of that, the workshops and courses they offer are very much linked to their specific practice,” explains P.A.R.T.S.’s Training Cycle coordinator Steven De Belder. “As a school, we need to avoid becoming some sort of encyclopaedia.” Any addition to the curriculum means a cut in the previous programme, which is understandably a tough choice. Yet it’s precisely thanks to the teachers’ freelance status that P.A.R.T.S. has the freedom to constantly reorient itself. “The autonomy that we have is very unique for a school.”

Besides the complex combination of performance theory and practice, another key cornerstone of Anne Teresa’s formation is the school’s cuisine. Every day at noon, students are served a three-course macrobiotic meal, freshly cooked on the spot. Rooted in the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang and of finding balance in health and vitality, the mainstays of the diet includes whole grains, vegetables, and beans. A very obvious and simple concept, in Anne Teresa’s eyes: “Why provide quality-driven physical and mental training and then ignore the actual physical food the students are ingesting? It’s going straight into their mouths, stomachs, blood, even tissue. It influences the consistency of their bones and muscles, their mental state and flows of energy. Their body as a whole. I’ve always had the feeling that introducing these concepts on energy, macrobiotic diets and humans’ interrelatedness with the environment is truly one of the most precious things that I could provide to my students.”

P.A.R.T.S.’ experimental cooking wasn’t accepted by everyone at the start, though. A reflection shared by Michiel, who recalls some of his classmates being against it, despite being a big fan himself. “It’s definitely become one of my favourite cuisines, without a doubt. Unfortunately, I don’t have the discipline to do it myself right now. Even though it apparently doesn’t take that much effort, it would still require me getting up earlier in the morning!” So it’s only been all the more rewarding for Anne Teresa to see, little by little, people beginning to accept her view on nutrition.

At the end of their three-year Training Cycle program, students receive a Performing Arts Training certificate. Although the school is recognised and funded by the Flemish Ministry of Education, P.A.R.T.S. is not accredited according to the more standard Bologna Process, the EU attempt at harmonising European higher education institutions. “Diplomas are becoming increasingly important: back in the day, if you obtained a degree in Italy, it would only really be valid in Italy. Since the Bologna Process however, the degree is recognised throughout Europe. So pre-1999, having a diploma wasn’t even really an issue, while today it’s becoming paramount to being recognised as a trained professional,” Theo explains. So even though the Performing Arts Training degree doesn’t hold the same validity as a “normal” bachelor’s degree would, P.A.R.T.S. is still recognised by the Flemish Region as a higher institution of the arts in its own right, alongside four other institutions – namely a.pass, HISK, IOA and Orpheus Instituut. P.A.R.T.S.’ management is fast at work to finally be able to introduce an EU-recognised diploma for its students. Theo remains positive however: “End of the day, it just shows how dedicated and determined our students are to be at P.A.R.T.S., despite knowing that there’s no standardised certificate to be granted at the end.”

“I’ve always had the feeling that introducing these concepts on energy, macrobiotic diets and humans’ interrelatedness with the environment is truly one of the most precious things that I could provide to my students.”

Asked about the influence of new technologies on the school and on dance in general, Anne Teresa elaborates: “It’s important to remember that P.A.R.T.S. was founded after the fall of the Berlin Wall and before the arrival of the Internet and the Digital Age, with all the changes that it implies. Modes of communication and the flows of knowledge have been facilitated greatly, with technology increasingly reconfiguring how we understand the body. For instance, the growing fields of artificial intelligence and the bionic body are steadily challenging how we understand the body today. Statements like I move therefore I am and I feel therefore I am have become essential starting points for thinking how we can position ourselves in the world, and the role of the body more generally.”

And it is precisely this knack for self-actualisation and constantly being open to change which reinforces Anne Teresa’s commitment to staying relevant and up-to-date as a contemporary dance institution. As is made evident by her grand vision for P.A.R.T.S.’ future, which is already an extension of her overriding career: how to translate the pressing need for ecological engagement with dance education. “If a school is a place where one can think about the future, or can pave the way for the future, I think that in comparison to more than 30 years ago, today’s largest challenge will be ecological. The imminent rise of pressing questions, like where the consistent destruction of our planet will lead us, what the place of art and politics is in today’s society, and what role, after all, the performing arts and dance should take in this task,” Anne Teresa ponders.

“In the 90s, I was overseeing things like a young, overbearing mother. Now, I feel I’m more of a grandmotherly figure – but hopefully not with a sclerotic finger! I’m trusting that age has more to do with experience and wisdom than with sclerosis. Being on the side-line rather than instructing from the front means that I’m now trying to instruct on the larger things, rather than to engage in precise elaboration. No theory without practice. No practice without theory.”