Since she began making dances in the early 1980s, Belgian Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker has swung between two poles. On one side are the expressionist, theatrical, multimedia pieces such as I Said I (1999); on the other – the side I much prefer – are works that are deeply rooted in musical structures, such as Toccata (1993, to Bach). But whichever way her pendulum swings, she follows it with a tenacious singularity of purpose.
That is apparent throughout De Keersmaeker’s collaboration with contemporary music ensemble Ictus, for a programme featuring the composer she has returned to most often: Steve Reich. It opens, aptly enough, with swinging pendulums: two microphones, suspended from leads, that emit a sound each time they pass over an amplifier. The out-of-phase rhythm and fuzzy electronic noise – repetitive, yet never the same twice – are strangely hypnotic. The two long leads become eerily reminiscent of walking legs, their “steps” not so much set to music as emerging from the same source. This straightforward set-up is Reich’s matter-of-factly titled Pendulum Music, and it demonstrates a matter-of-fact principle: simple elements can produce complex results.
The rest of the programme is essentially an elaboration of that theme. Next comes Reich’s Marimba Phase; here the repetitive, doubling-up principle is exactly the same, but now there are two percussionists and more intricate rhythms. The resulting sonic splashes and ripples are exponentially more sophisticated. And though we can’t quite follow it, we still sense how the music is formed – which is as thrilling as being able to glimpse patterns in rain.
Having set out the musical ideas, De Keersmaeker shows how they work with dance. In Fase, her remarkable duet from 1982 to Reich’s Piano Phase, two women combine and recycle some basic elements – a swing-armed pivot, an airy tiptoe, a swooshy about-turn – but gradually get out of step with each other. Each dancer casts a double shadow on the backcloth, which merge and separate behind them, multiplying the choreographic effect to create the illusion of a piece for six, not two.
It’s a masterclass in composition, and we follow it, awestruck. Then De Keersmaeker ups the game to a higher plane altogether – as if progressing from mathematical formula to natural science. Eight Lines, a new work, features eight women and a repertoire of casual walks, tumbling runs, helicopter jumps and frog hops that are distributed among the group to create a wondrous, many-layered perpetuum mobile. You can see that each woman begins with a distinctive phrasing; that one, in silver, echoes the sparkling piccolo sounds on the score; that the groupings gradually cycle about the stage like the tidal surge and ebb of the musical bassline. But the actual structure is too complex to grasp, and all you can do is succumb to the image of an order that is higher than yourself.
In Four Organs, another new work, one man orbits the stage in a repeated slow twist while four others reconfigure themselves around him, like broken chords around a shifting root. It’s the weakest part of the programme: though the pattern keeps changing, it’s we catch up with it, and it grows wearying. Only towards the end, as the four men begin not only to intersect but to interact – lifting and slipping past each other, tipping sideways – does it feel as if the work is beginning to realise its potential.
Poème symphonique may be by Gyorgy Ligeti, but it provides a suitably Reichian musical interlude. A hundred metronomes are set ticking, and the piece simply ends when silence begins. For some, this might be like 5 minutes’ worth of watching paint dry. For me, as with Reich’s Pendulum Music, the effect was hypnotic and strangely affecting; imagine a hundred heartbeats winding down.
The finale is Drumming. As with Eight Lines, it’s another higher-order composition that’s we can only fleetingly grasp. But whereas Eight Lines feels like layers – tides, waves, foam, droplets – Drumming feels like a single moment unravelled to reveal the complexity it contains. It begins with a long, convoluted solo phrase; the rest of the piece is simply an elaboration of elements contained within it, but multiplied, refracted and distributed across the entire ensemble. It’s another dazzling composition. With its vigorous drum patterns, and its patterns building into headlong rushes and tumbles, you’re overwhelmed with a sense of plenitude and possibility.
That’s the final piece, but the show’s not over yet. Even the encore is strictly in composed in line with the programme, the musicians playing Reich on wooden blocks while the dancers loop backwards through the programme with snippets of choreography from Drumming to Fase. De Keersmaeker has maintained a singular, relentless focus over two unbroken hours, yet even down to its curtain call this programme consistently commands, challenges, enlightens and uplifts.