Living Art: Akarova and the Belgian Avant-Garde

Article excerpt

A photograph from 1923 Brussels, now housed in the city's Archives of Modern Architecture, shows a dancer posed in front of a cloth backdrop. The dancer is balanced on her left leg, on rdevé, with die right foot pulled up to a low passe. Despite her precarious posture, she stands like a living caryatid, her arms stretched wide and bent at right angles at die elbows and again at die wrists, as if to support an invisible weight. The positioning of die dancer shows a par mer 's understanding of die geometric imagery sewn onto the fabric screen behind her. The upright strength of her trunk and left leg augments die verticality of two white rectangles to either side of her, while her bent elbows and right knee fit her form into the architectonic frame created by an inverted L shape above and to die left of her head. The dancer's costuming - also a play of bold forms sewn on fabric - seems to take its decorative cue from the organic curves of the dancer's body. Yet die soft forms work to visually flat- ten the dancer's form and connect it to die backdrop behind her, creating an abstract composition of animate geometry. The light suit carries an applied dark swirl across the midriff diat visually transfers die organic curve of her waist onto the screen behind. In a Suprematist-inspired composition, die circle placed at her breast bodi stylizes die woman's form and highlights the abstract symbolic order to which she belongs. The photograph goes beyond documenting a dancer in costume to display a work of visual abstraction in which die dancer's organic body is fused into die objective ground of die stage, between costume and backdrop. The woman in die photo is die francophone Belgian dancer Akarova, who in post-World War I Brussels became her country's most prolific avant-garde choreographer. In developing her unique style of dance, Akarova accorded primary place to die materials, construction, and organization of avant-garde aesdietics. Aldiough she was never filmed on stage in this period, the photograph gives us a glimpse of her radical performance style that was hailed by contemporary artists and critics as "music-architecture," "living geometry," and "pure plastics."

The photograph documents a fragment of Akarova 's production during the years of the Belgian art movement Plastique Pure and its champion, die journal 7 Arts, which ran from 1922 to 1929. Akarova, in this period, was married to die Belgian constructivist and Plastique Pure artist Marcel-Louis Baugniet. Through her connection to him and die 7 Arts circle, she created dances and costumes in close collaboration with avant-garde artists of many disciplines and became an important and well-known figure in Belgian theater. Always receiving single billing, she was famous in her own time and remained committed to dance until her death at ninety-five. Nonetheless, aside from an unpublished Belgian diesis, there is only a single in-depdi treatment of Akarova 's production: a monograph produced just years before her death by die Archives of Modern Architecture in Brussels. ' This obscurity in scholarship may be linked to her working methods. She performed solely in Belgium, eventually creating her own theater spaces at home to retain autonomy from institutional influence. The result of her nonconformist method and her careful choice of collaborators, however, was a dance fully informed by die avant-garde aesthetics of her time; it is a dance diat I believe embodies the aesdietic impulses of Belgium's entry into abstraction in die plastic arts.

This study attempts to re-create the viewing experience of Akarova 's performances to suggest how she could synthesize the dancing body with the space of the stage and that of the authence through her use of avant-garde stage designs and an entirely new conception of music as a structural architecture of sound. Not only did Akarova 's dance expand the discourse of the Belgian avant-garde by incorporating its Plastique Pure principles into a time- and body-based medium, but, as I will argue, she offered the first abstract artists in Belgium a glimpse of an ideal applied art. …