On the occasion of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's Vortex Temporum at BAM, we are re-publishing RoseLee's Parkett review of De Keersmaeker's work from 1991/92 when the Belgian choreogropher was just making a name for herself on the contemporary dance scene. Vortex Temporum runs October 14th and 15th at the Brookyln Academy of Music.
Thanks to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and The Kitchen in New York, we have had the opportunity to watch Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker grow up before our very eyes. Over the past several years, we have witnessed a thoughtful and provocative young choreographer develop a series of ideas and movement vocabularies with extraordinary rigorousness. At times dark and stodgy with a kind of northern European poetic tension, at others as playful as a couple of adolescents vogueing in front of a mirror, her dances have appeared here as a series of novellas on contemporary European dance and culture, with footnotes to an equivalent American story. Now 32, she seems poised to embark on what she has called "the big novel," where her powerful talents--that she has exhibited so ambitiously in past works--mixed with sheer dexterity and experience, will provide the undertow that catapults her into the annals of dance history.
Last year, she brought her troop, Rosas, to New York to perform a work 143 entitled STELLA (1989); they had trunks full of operatic costumes-voluminous brocades and satins with pinched bodices and billowing skirts-and a hundred metronomes on the floor (in reference to Gyorgi Ligeti's Symphony Poem for 100 Metronomes, also part of the piece) that stood guard like miniature sentinels in the no man's land between performers and audience. Five young women raced on stage, pitched forward on their Barbie-doll high heels, and, in a kind of mad frenzy, tumbled to the ground and quickly rolled over. Up down, up down, they rose, fell, and rolled. Wide-eyed and coy, a dancer would remove a piece of clothing; or in a feigned fit of tem-per, bending at the waist, turning and swooping as though harvesting potatoes, she might remove a shoe and grip-ping it by its arch, hurl it across the stage. Slipping in and out of their black short-skirted Agnes B suits, sometimes donning garments taken from the waterfall of nineteenth century clothes strung across a wooden screen upstage, the young women played girlish dress-ups. "Look at me! Look at me!" they seemed to say, exasperating themselves and the audience, then collapsing into a danced equivalent of tears or laughter.
A work created with and by the dancers themselves, whose personalities and lives were its very "material," STELLA was inevitably self-conscious as well, conveying a kind of post-adolescent vanity, somewhat countered by the raw energy and elegance of De Keersmaeker's dancers. With this season's ACHTERLAND however, De Keersmaeker saved the best bits from STELLA, redrew its floor plan, spliced, edited, erased, and added. Suddenly her flamboyantly costumed women, punchy in their own attractiveness, had considerably grown up. Instead of the endless layering of clothes over porce-144 lain skin of the former work, these dancers were simply costumed--alternately in tight-fitting skirted suits, high waisted men's pants and shirts, and colorful tops and stretch pants--to match the forceful architecture of the stage; rather than the landslide of bodies chaotically rolling across the stage, these dancers sprang up as though attached to the floor by elastic to create and orchestrate tension between the floor and an eye-level horizon line; and instead of the spoken narrative--based on Goethe's Stella and Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire--that overshadowed STELLA's choreographic conversation, this later work rather told the stories through bodies in motion, without text-and now including men.
The five women danced, as they had previously, to Ligeti's Eight Studies for Piano, now played live by a musician at the back of the stage. They sat on wooden platforms, their tight skirts rucked up around their hips revealing virgin white underpants, rhythmically slapping their thighs, elaborating on the cloyingly seductive movements of STELLA. With torsos tipped back and supported on their elbows, feet in the air, they developed a fast-paced repetitive foot jive; and just where this movement might seem to begin to look silly, the pace quickened and they leapt off the platforms, embarking on a sequence of tumbles and eloquently articulated leaps that, with their split-second timing and kamikaze physicality, would enthrall the viewers once again.
End piano section, exit women: enter violinist with music stand at the lower left stage; enter three men. And with the first bow of Belgian composer Eugene Ysaye's Three Sonatas for Violin Solo, bare-footed male dancers in tailored trousers and formal shirts began an equally fast-paced and elaborate set of rolls and falls showing how different such movements look transposed to the male physique. The contrast also emphasized De Keersmaeker's prepared-ness, finally, to reshuffle the cards of sex and gender: while previous works were conceived for women's bodies alone, and were lengthy meditations on female connections, in ACHTER-LAND De Keersmaeker allowed the men onstage in separate but equal parallel play. Dancing together in alternating sections--the men always accompanied by the violinist, the women by the pianist--each group now and then went so far as to perform for one another at a distance and separated by an invisible line, which they often stumbled over into comedy.
No doubt taking cautious steps to eventually integrate male and female dancers, the choreography for each, though separate, nevertheless followed the same design. Its emphasis was entirely horizontal, and the dancers' bodies always hovered close to the floor. Whereas so much dance performance involves airborne shapes, bodies tossing against gravity with feet, leg muscles, and knees always engaged in providing just the right amount of leverage to get there and stay there, these dancers plummeted to the floor. And this connection to the floor is the closest thing so far in De Keersmaeker's work to partnering; along with the beautiful and emblematic chairs that are an emphatic signature in each of her works, this contact between body and immovable mass creates a startling tension in the work. Something about the repetitive beating of limbs, as hard as possible, against the floor or of limbs wound around chairs--essentially of the body's complete abandon--is also intensely sexual. Sometimes masochistic but also daring--as in the floor rolls--sometimes conversational and gentle--as in the chair sections--this relationship to the physical environment introduces an every-day ordinariness into the complex dance maneuvers. Chairs, De Keersmaeker says, are 'just a part of life ... as Europeans, we spend our days on them," and it seems that for her it is their utter simplicity that forms a bridge between the artifice of spectacle and the reality of intimacy and passion.
ACHTERLAND is an important benchmark in De Keersmaeker's oeuvre. With it she has reviewed the elements of her own vocabulary--her intellectual understanding of movement, her instinctive and precise response to music, and her ability to imbue the staging apparatus of lighting, sets, and costumes with existential metaphor--while at the same time alerting the audience to new directions. She has honed in on movement as the very architecture of the work, inserting its axonometric into a dramatic black hole of a stage fragmented and punctuated with bright surfaces: clear white lights, or very light wooden structures like the trapezoid dance floor raked and ending in a trough big enough to hold a black grand piano and the portable wooden platforms that the dancers move across the space. The set is elegant, stylish, and spacious, its wooden mural resembling a row of Donald Judd boxes hung on the black backdrop like a jewel on a lapel: the final touch to a stage well-dressed, as though for a modern version of Fred Astaire's Top Hat. What anticipation for De Keersmaeker's latest dance drama now being shaped in a Brussels rehearsal studio.
First published in Parkett no. 35/1993, reprint with permission of Parkett Publishers, Zurich/New York