De Keersmaeker’s dance of ever more simple movement

Jana Perkovic, Performance/Dance

 Rosas, Golden Hours (As You Like It)

Rosas, Golden Hours (As You Like It)

Rosas, Golden Hours (As You Like It)

There are many strange things about Belgium—its entirely artificial birth, its role as the seat of the European Union, its dysfunctional regional politics, down to the way in which, on a regular work day, the whole country becomes one uniform traffic jam, causing delays as far as Germany. But the strangest must be that Belgium has, on top of its many peculiarities, also claimed the title of global centre for contemporary performance—in particular, dance.

Such centrality is, in other places and at other times, usually explained with some combination of economic power, important cultural heritage, long-sighted and proactive support for the arts, or at least a presence of wealthy patrons. Belgium is the home of many of the most important performance-makers today, yet it has none of these: it is a modestly performing economy with not much wage differentiation, its arts policy is chaotic and cultural history unimpressive (with the remarkable but all the more confusing exception of graphic novels, where Belgium also leads the world). Sure, there are obvious advantages: it is incredibly central (an hour or two to Paris, London, Amsterdam and Berlin). It is cheap and easy-going, allowing for an artistic existence free from the grinding stresses of Paris or London, and the Belgian culture at its best seems to have serendipitously combined the understatement and detail-oriented mindset of Northern Europe with the Latin love of art, fun and appreciation of the fundamental messiness of life. Still, these circumstantial benefits do not amount to an explanation.

Going to theatre in Belgium, I often wonder about the role that performance plays in this country. The audience, as we know, does half of the work in theatre, but the investment of Belgian audiences in the theatre event is hard to discern. The works I have seen have had neither the political urgency nor demand for societal dialogue that permeates German or Balkan theatre, nor the blatant entertainment value of British theatre, nor the torturous national self-examination that occupies contemporary Australian performance. Instead, there’s a laboratory-like focus on research, that seems to be appreciated for its aesthetic (rather than political or philosophical) qualities. I am guessing that some modicum of regional identity is expressed and consumed through the performance encounter—most of the contemporary greats are Flemish (not Wallonian), supported by the Flemish theatres.

Augustus ergens op de vlakte

Case in point: Augustus ergens op de vlakte (“August somewhere on the plains”) is August: Osage County by another name, directed by Tom Dewispelaere and Stijn Van Opstal of Antwerp-based performance collective Olympique dramatique. I cannot overemphasise the public and critical appreciation for this production, which was visually unremarkable (no three-storey house, though) and structurally extremely faithful. I was told that the translation was exquisitely colloquial, seamlessly transforming this Great American Play into a Great Flemish Play (Johnna the Native American servant spoke with a Dutch accent). Certainly, greater emphasis on physical comedy and a more shrill register of anger distanced the production from the more measured Steppenwolf original (and, beyond any doubt, from the humourless film version). My personally applied Brechtian distantiation resulted in deeper insight into the clunky, predictable mechanics of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer-winning play.

Rosas, Partita 2

Partita 2 is a collaboration between Ann Teresa de Keersmaeker, the icon of European contemporary dance, Boris Charmatz, its rising star and violinist Amandine Beyer who performs live on stage, occasionally being swept up into the choreography.

While Charmatz’ interest in free improvisation meshes finely with De Keersmaeker’s relaxed and minimal choreography, the concept is resolutely hers. De Keersmaeker has been revisiting Bach for years now—a composer whose baroque compositions are pure structural perfection, understood better as mathematics or engineering than as anything to do with emotion or narrative, and as such an unusual choice for dance—finding ever more subtle ways of illustrating, or amplifying, his musical structure with extremely simple (but never austere) movement, based on natural body movement (“my walking is my dancing,” she says).

Partita 2 opens with Beyer (I think) performing the first four movements of Bach’s Partita for Violin n.2 in 20 minutes of complete darkness. Then De Keersmaeker and Charmatz arrive to execute a choreography in complete silence (this is revealed to be the choreography for the fifth movement, the renowned 15-minute Chaconne). Finally, music and dance come together in a unified reprise. It is a fascinating gesture of courage, to substitute one of the most famous pieces of music ever written with its dance interpretation. It is even more mesmerising, however, to watch an extremely simple, almost-amateur-looking choreography repeat to music, and realise that it minutely and precisely responds to intricate musical patterns. De Keersmaeker and Charmatz walk and run in circles, hold hands, fix or discard clothing, retrace each other’s steps, or, in a most memorable sequence, stand with their four feet in the same spot and slowly cantilever one another to the ground, then back upright. These are gestures of warm-up, of rehearsal, not of a finished piece—and yet, the cantilevering sequence, in which Charmatz naturally spends more time upright than the much smaller and lighter De Keersmaeker, is revealed to be organising the forces of inertia and gravity in perfect sync with Bach’s 60-or-so variations to a four-measure structure.

Partita 2, with its total absence of narrative, illustrative emotion, or humour, is the sort of piece one should only attempt to see when very rested and prepared to focus deeply—its delight is entirely in the structural relationship between Bach’s composition and the choreography. Appreciating the Chaconne alone requires depth of musical understanding. This is dance for nerds.

Rosas, Golden Hours

Partita 2, which had premiered at Kunstenfestivaldesarts in 2013, could already be understood as the closing paragraph of a long artistic journey. Golden Hours, premiering in late January 2015, signalled the opening of a new chapter. This time working on the Rosas ensemble, De Keersmaeker is still using the principle of illustrating deep structural principles of a minutely studied score with extremely simple movement; but now she has turned her attention to pop music, bringing together Brian Eno’s album Another Green World (1975), and Shakespeare’s As You Like It, while the movement is now working from the principles of social interaction (“my talking is my dancing,” she wrote).

In practice, De Keersameker closely translates Shakespeare’s play into movement that illustrates sometimes interactions and sometimes the linguistic content of the text. One gets the impression that each line of Shakespeare is present in the choreography. A ‘narrative’ is present on stage, but the text is clearly used primarily as a score, to organise the dance structurally. The transposition, thus, verges on intentionally idiotic: monologues and dialogues become solos and duets, statements become gestures. Eno’s album also underpins the work, emerging more visibly in the second half, where entire scenes are replaced with his songs (with two organisational principles revealed in turns, Golden Hours repeats the formal solutions of Partita 2).

A Shakespeare scholar would, I suspect, get enormous pleasure from reading Golden Hours as an analytical essay on As You Like It. A De Keersmaeker fan, likewise, could follow her trajectory into ever more simple movement, illustrating scores ever more outside the traditional musical pieces for choreography. Yet, on the surface, having turned a play into 2 ½ hours of interpretive dance, oddly close to literalism, Golden Hours closely resembles really bad art.

The premiere of Golden Hours happened amid the news that La Monnaie, the Brussels opera house, may stop funding contemporary dance [impelled by state budget cuts. Eds]. It will inevitably politicise this work: De Keersmaeker’s career developed through her 23-year residency there, and Golden Hours will be taken as an example of work that can no longer happen. However, Golden Hours is the sort of work that needs less, not more publicity: it is a first step in a new direction, coming from a mature artist whose work is now characterised by hermetic exploration of form. It should not be asked to represent a cause, but allowed to develop.

From Belgium is a new column by Jana Perkovic covering performance and dance in Brussels.

Augustus ergens op de vlakte, writer Tracy Letts, direction Tom Dewispelaere, Stijn Van Opstal, co-produced with Toneelhuis, KVS, NTGent, KVS 3-12 Dec, 2014; Partita 2, choreography Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, production Rosas, Kaaitheater 19-21 Dec, 2014; Golden Hours (As You Like It), choreography Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Kaaitheater, Brussels, 23-31 Jan, 2015.

RealTime issue #125 Feb-March 2015 pg. 31

© Jana Perkovic; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

23 February 2015