Ann Van den Broek and The Dance of Trauma

As a psychoanalyst and a dancer I am keenly aware of the connection between mind and body, between thoughts and feeling states, and the way that each influences the other. Intense emotions like fear, anxiety, depression and grief can freeze the body and constrict its movements and possibilities, holding it in the grip of trauma. The inverse is also true, where movement (dance, yoga, sports, walking) frees the body from the rigidity that fear and trauma arrest it in. The dancer in me has always believed that movement is an antidote to trauma. The psychoanalyst in me knows that it is.

But is it?

After watching the work of Flemish/Dutch choreographer Ann Van den Broek, I began to reconsider my experience of movement and dance. In her hands, movement becomes repetitive, rigid, and obsessive-compulsive in its quality, both traumatic and constraining, it is disconnected from the emotion that generates it. The feeling that is portrayed in the movement and steps eventually loops around and out of the body of the dancers, its repetition becoming a thing in itself, which is then projectively alive in the audience. If there was such a thing as Kleinian choreography, this would be it: It is the other, or in this case, the audience, who now feels  and carries the traumatic effect of the choreography- experiencing it as an (often violent) intrusive and insistent hammering of meanings through repetitive movement and having to find their way through it.

Movement as traumatic?


And that is exactly the point that Van den Broek means to make when, confronting us with an experience that seeks a signifier through its affective intensity and internal repercussions. This is the language of passions and emotions–of excess– a language that is more felt and sensed than spoken, because it fractures thoughts and words. It cannot but capture our attention viscerally.

To my mind this is not so much dance, as it is conceptual art narrated in movement. It is not for the faint of heart, I can tell you that. Van den Broek is not interested in aesthetics, so if you like your dance  pretty and pink, then she is not for you, unless you like your pretty and pink in the form of flesh, which she uses as a choreographic syllabary. In her hands, the body becomes not just what connects heartbeat to life, but also an electric battleground of impulses and needs, id battling ego and using superego as voyeur. Hers is the language of trauma: of dissociated affect and experience that repeats itself in an effort to find a symbol and a signifier to mentalize it, in an effort to find the words to say it, speak it, and perhaps repair it. Trauma interrupts our ability to think clearly and understand what has happened, it is an assault that fractures our ability to be. And Van den Broek knows this.

Ann Van den Broek’s pieces are signification at work through movement, even if there is no reparation in sight. Watch any one of her “dances” and get ready to know and understand in an entirely different way-it bypasses thought. Her work is transgressive, and as such, places demands on the minds of her audience to translate feelings and sensations (many of them unpleasant, painful,and even repulsive) into language, words and thought. With her ‘conceptual choreography’ Van den Broek accesses what is unconscious and often exiled from consciousness because of the painful affect contained within, instead making it explicit through the bodies of the dancers and through the subjectivity of her audience. To represent what has heretofore not been symbolized is no small feat, and Van den Broek enlists the viewer and the audience in her attempts to do so. Without the relationship to the other, the audience, and the gaze that alerts us of another subjectivity interacting with the dancers, Van den Broek’s work would fall short. As it is, it is a wail into the unconscious of the other and the human connection between all of us.

Take, for example, her most famous work to date, The Co(te)lette. The title is a play on the words ‘cotelette’ (cutlet) and ‘Colette,’ as both a piece of meat and a work of art as represented in the piece. It has been filmed by Mike Higgins (of “Leaving Las Vegas” fame), whose camera follows and intrudes on the dancers. The description of the piece addresses women and flesh, and the perishability of beauty and desire as overwhelming. But after watching it, I can tell you that the description does not begin to address what the piece is about. I would say that it is more of a (porno)graphic experience of the female body and everything that it holds within: maternity, sexuality, aggression, love. It also provides us with a sensual view of female subjectivity and its struggle toward identity and definition. It is unsparing in its portrayal of women and brutal in its repetition and insistence on the themes of sexuality, violence, and aggression come to life in the bodies of the dancers and the gaze of the observers. It will enrapture you, frighten you and break your heart. It is a deeply disturbing piece.

Then there is Ohm, a piece in which resistance, action, stillness, and passivity are explored through the struggle of staying in control, which becomes compulsive and pounding, and brings you into its insistence that life is but a relay race in an endless tunnel. In I Solo Ment she takes on loss, grief and death through movement. Here we see bodies moving in ceaseless motion, meant to involve us in the loss and the grief that is eating at them. The dance begins with a death and grabs our hearts instantly with its themes of relationship, loneliness and isolation.

Van den Broek is vigorous in her pursuit of sensory registers and experience on her way to flipping the homeostatic switch in all of us. Her appetite for intensified stimulation as a way of story telling is voracious. Her work screams and whispers at the same time, and it all takes place inside you as you respond instinctually, filling in where the dancers leave off– you are taken into their experience. Perhaps the title of one of her pieces, Q61-It’s a Wonderful Life If You Can Find It, says it all. Van den Broek uses the music of Nick Cave, sweet in its crooning, and juxtaposes it with six dancers who clearly have not found the wonder in life– quite the opposite. Dressed in white on a white stage they go in and out of six boxes, sometimes naked, sometimes dressed, always lost in their ceaseless search and detached from any emotion, they move as mechanical robots wrenched by unfamiliar emotions and feelings which have lost their meaning through the compulsivity of their actions.

It is Van den Broek’s intention to pull you in and affect you, to grab you from the inside and fill you up in this cold and unemotional trance. Yet, her choreography is not strong enough nor technical enough to do this; it is her insistence and obsessiveness, her repetitive dissociation of emotion from movement that grabs you. It is her creation of the elements of trauma that demands your attention, the way her work evokes unrepresented states of mind, which are both disruptive and destabilizing because they are subjectively experienced as transgressive. By cutting off emotion from movement and dislodging cognitive awareness, Van den Broek manages to create an excess of meaning that eludes understanding, breaking down the ego and leaving us in a dysregulated state that emulates and enacts the very sensations that seek signification.

To the degree that art is transgressive it can also be generative, in that it creates the possibility of growth and evolution in its breakdown of known experience, and it is here that Ann Van den Broek delivers. 



The Black Piece

The Red Piece

Das Blaue


Listen & See


The Co(te)lette


We Solo Men





Hurry Up


"Q61" by Ann Van den Broek


Comments are closed.