Ahead of her show at the 46th Autumn Festival in Paris, we take a look back at the career of one of the foremost contemporary choreographers. From Mozart to Miles Davis, the music that Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker engages with spans history and genre, but her vision remains centered on that most fundamental of relationships: music and the body.
For the 46th edition of the Autumn Festival in Paris, a very special guest will be in attendance: Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. A major figure in contemporary dance and choreography, she will present eleven shows at the event, which concludes on February 13, 2019. After graduated from the Mudra de Béjart dance school in Brussels, she was passionate about the possibilities for dialogue between dance and music. Over the years this passion has evolved into virtuosity, spawning a choreographic vocabulary that feels both elemental and poetic.
In engaging with the music of others, her work concerns organizing “energies in time and space” to achieve clarity in a conception of dance that is driven by discovery; just as fascinated by music as by nature and geometry. Indeed, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s artistic desires know no bounds: her repertoire of around forty pieces invites viewers from all walks of life to her “dance concerts.” For her, music and the body are inseparable.
New York, 1982. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker lays the foundations of her vision of dance with Fase, Four Movements to the music of Steve Reich, comprised of the Violin Phase, Piano Phase, the Come Out and finally, Clapping Music. In an exchange with the musicologist Bojana Cvejić she spoke about the compositions she used: “It sounded like the music of a stehgeiger (standing violinist) – like a Yiddish coffee-concert violinist; an invitation to dance. I felt that it was music I wanted to dance to ( … ): it’s minimalist, while aiming for a sense of the maximum.” Here, the extreme processes of Steve Reich (a pioneer of minimalism), with his repetition and phase shifts, were translated to the stage in circles, or later in an infinite spiral, eliciting trance-states in the both the dancer and spectator alike.
Since Fase, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker has always remained faithful to “her first partner,” the music, and has gone on to create two more masterpieces over Steve Reich’s compositions. She choreographed Drumming in 1998, utlizing a superb piece composed by Reich back in 1970 following a trip he made to West Africa that was inspired by Coltrane’s free jazz on Africa. To evoke this atmosphere, she deployed an armada of bongos, marimbas and xylophones that were played live by the Ictus ensemble.
A constant feature in her choreography has been the idea of listening to the dance and watching music. For Rain in 2001, she imbued dancers’ physical outbursts with the principles and techniques of pure dance by launching into the monumental Music for 18 musicians. It was the culmination of her choreography career for some and yet another landmark along the way for others.
Throughout the 1980s, her soundtrack consisted of “Joy Division, Nina Hagen, the Talking Heads, TC Matic and the Sex Pistols,” but in her work, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker has never been restricted by musical eras or parameters. Instead, she has crossed boundaries, notably alongside the Belgian composer and filmmaker Thierry de Mey, her “art dealer” and loyal ally.
Although Reich’s structures inherently support her choreography, as well as affording her a lot of freedom, she has remained engaged in the struggle of finding different ways to address more complex, less obvious musical architectures. Nothing has been off limits: not Thierry de Mey’s original experiments for Rosas Danst Rosas in 1983, nor Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4 that featured in the 1986 show Bartók/Aantekeningen – “the most dissonant and dramatic of all.” The likes of Ligeti, Bach, Debussy and Stravinsky haven’t been dismissed, either. The choreographer even acted as stage director for several operas, including Toshio Hosokawa’s Hanjo in 2004 and Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte at the Paris Opera in 2017.
“I will always be attached to Miles Davis and John Coltrane. It’s a love story.” Indeed, with jazz, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker shifts the cursor a little bit further along on her quest for freedom, renewing the range of her experiments. Miles Davis did the same in 1969, locking himself in the studio with a group of thirteen musicians that included Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul and Chick Corea. This furious improvised session gave birth to a vibrating, psychedelic and soon-to-be cult double-album: Bitches Brew. In 2003, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and thirteen dancers from her company, Rosas, adopted and repurposed the music, creating Bitches Brew/Tacoma Narrows. Here, steps of jazz and tribal dance are never too far away, seeming transposed from the silver screen. Along with hip-hop influences, these steps cross the dance space like an echo. Solos arise with the same obviousness as in a jazz concert, amongst free music, free movements and dance styles of maximum acuity, all seeming to submit to the giddy heights of improvisation.
In A Love Supreme, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and the Spanish dancer Salva Sanchis set out to conquer a new territory. This time it concerned the spiritual and transcendental atmospheres of John Coltrane’s mythical A Love Supreme, recorded in 1964. It was a spectacle of rare magnitude, one where bodies offered themselves to the volcanic grace of Coltrane’s music before questioning the relationship between structure and freedom over the melancholic chords of an Indian raga sung by Sulochana Brahaspati.
Her show in the year 2000, In Real Time, captured the essence of De Keersmaeker’s relationship with movement. Music inhabits every inch of the choreographer’s world and In Real Time, rhythm was utilized like a metronome. Sometimes, the stage was danced on and at others, the music shined through in its absence as a “source of beauty and consolation.”
The choreographer explored silence for the first time in 1984 with Elena’s Aria, a piece that turned “inwardly,” concerning “retirement in silence and quietude, waiting, in slowness and absence. ( … ) I liked the way that musicality emerged from the slowness of the moment.” In Elena’s Aria, you could here the softness of older recordings – Enrico Caruso singing Neapolitan songs, a duet bound by friendship from Bizet’s opera Les Pêcheurs de Perles de Bizet (The Pearl Fishers) and the andante movements of the KV 454 sonata by Mozart (a surprising interpretation by the classical-jazz pianist Friedrich Gulda). Building on this, she underwent a radical stylistic shift in 2009 with The Song, choreographed for nine men and a woman, plunged into silence for two whole hours.
She has channelled some of the greatest composers on stage, including Joan Baez and her protest songs for Once in 2002. Here, in De Keersmaeker’s first solo since Violin Phase in 1982, the choreographer surrounded herself with a team of sound engineers, finally deploying what is perhaps the essence of all music. Body music.
* All quotes are taken from Carnets d’une chorégraphe (A Choreographer’s Score) by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Bojana Cvejić published in 2012 by Mercatorfonds.
12/06/18 – 12/08/18, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker / Rosas & Ictus – Rain (live), La Grande Halle (Paris)