Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker returned with her company Rosas to the Queen Elizabeth Hall with their new piece Toccata, as part of the Turning World festival of international contemporary dance. The work was something of a surprise for me; a delightful one, mind you. It’s a suite of dances to music by J.S. Bach performed live by pianist Jos van Immerseel, and very different in character from the last work of De Keersmaeker’s I saw, Achterland, which was performed at last year’s Turning World. Achterland was characterised by ironic comments on gender conventions, and breathtakingly furious movement – edgy, nervous, with rapid dives and violent slams to the floor. Toccata, on the other hand, has little trace of this anxiety; and although performed by four women and one man, which inevitably sets up a gender difference in what we see, this difference is nevertheless not a subject of the choreography. I wondered whether the piece was, in fact, choreographed for five women – De Keersmaeker did not actually perform as originally billed, and I assumed that her place was taken by the man in the piece, Vincent Dunoyer. Even so, much of her previous work has been for an all-female group and has nevertheless referred to gender in its costumes and its movements – such as the short black skirts, white knickers and slinky walks of Bartók/Mikrokosmos – and there is none of this display in Toccata.
The overriding concern is, instead, with musical images and structures. The work is divided into five sections, corresponding to five pieces of music. Apart from the last section, each is identified by the title of the music projected onto a large backdrop, together with a couple of bars of the score. The raised stage is shaped like a rough triangle, widening at the backstage tip, its long edge across the diagonal. It’s designed so that the piano fits along its front edge, like a triangle pointing the opposite way. The stage itself is angled at quite a steep rake from upstage-right to downstage-left, so that its shape and slope echo the raised lid of the piano. Chairs placed around the edge of the stage, the dancing floor, suggest a concert recital. At the back of the floor is a horizontal white strip, reminiscent of the ivory of a piano keyboard, along which the dancers enter and exit. From his piano stool, van Immerseel’s view must have been of the dancer’s feet, seen across the angled surfaces of the piano lid and the stage, moving in nimble counterpoint to his own fingers.
As if to emphasise the importance of the music, the opening section is an unaccompanied solo – by the pianist. Bach’s Toccata in B-minor establishes the polyphonic musical texture which informs the structure of the subsequent dances. The dancers enter for the second section, to the Fantasia and Fugue in A-minor. Dressed in formal black and white (another reference to the piano keyboard?), with heavy shoes, they look like well-heeled concert-goers. Remembering Achterland, I anticipated some kind of satirical social comment expressed in violent motion. Instead, they took off their shoes, and a woman (Johanne Saunier) stepped forward to begin an unhurried, lyrical, almost tragic solo. Moving through pools of light, she evokes a deep inner yearning, tracing a trajectory between stretches reaching upward or outward, and soft, resigned falls to the floor – a giving-in to gravity so different from the Achterland hurls to the ground.
Just as the opening section had established the musical style of the work, this section establishes the physical style. The movement is cleanly executed, no fuzzy edges, and often further outlined by lighting the dancers in silhouette. This clarity is maintained even during the speedy jitters and spasms of the head and body which often punctuate the phrases – counterparts to the trills, turns and grace-notes that ornament Bach’s musical lines. The quirks and twitches recur throughout the piece: in parts of the third section. where the flicks and tremors are fastest and most florid, it makes the dancers appear like overexcited, hyperactive children; in the following section, they sometimes look like marionettes running on electricity.
Phrases of movement are often repeated with different spacing or orientation. These displacements and reversals allow a clear exposition of the motifs, enabling us to see them from different perspectives and to gauge the differing effects produced, like following the tonal transpositions of a musical theme. While for the audience these shifts of register produce an effect of symmetry, I imagine that – given the inclined stage – they must have felt strangely lop-sided to the performers.
The opening solo leads into an ensemble dance. Phrases weave to and fro between dancers to produce a living texture of symmetry, permutation, inversion, combination and canon – an analogue to the polyphonic lines of Bach’s fugues and inventions. But the correspondence is not over-literal: although ‘of a piece’ with the musical structure, the dancing appears as an added counterpointed layer in dialogue with the music, not simply coinciding with it but moving ahead, hesitating, or playfully interweaving with it. Trying to follow the interacting parts is a heady delight – like racing through an orchestral score while the music’s being played – and you smile at the ingenuity of invention, the capricious conjunctions, the off-beat visualisations.
Following the opening dance, we are treated to an elaboration of this basic style, many of the movement motifs recurring throughout with different treatments: combinations of duo, trio, quartet and quintet: variations in tempo, dynamics, harmonics. It’s all informed by the structure of the music: to the fugue, with its four-part musical writing, there is an interlacing of four different dancers; to the sonata, written originally for violin with accompaniment, there is often a solo dancer against whom the others move in counterpoint. There’s a slow Pavane, an appropriately runny Courante. It’s as if we’re being shown the rich variety that can be generated out of a few principles of formal and physical clarity.
Describing all these technical devices may give an impression of sterility, a dry intellectual exercise in tracing formal relations, entertaining but curiously pointless; indeed I’m sure that some people found it so. But for me it was quite the opposite: profoundly moving. Here again is a parallel with the music: just as some see Bach only as an overproducer of mathematically precise and formally complex brain-teasers, while others find in his music an exquisite distillation of human mood and experience, so Toccata has more to offer than structural rigour. Although cerebral pleasures are not to be underestimated, Toccata is also suffused with emotional resonances. From the yearning/giving-in opening solo, it moves through a range of moods and characterisations. Sweeps across the stage suggest a joyous freedom: there is much flirtatiousness (particularly in the third section); there are moments of calm, humour, agitation, isolation, accord. The dancers often acknowledge each other, sometimes smiling, as if affirming their togetherness even when they are performing quite different phrases. This personal aspect is emphasised by the different physical qualities and body types of each dancer, highlighted in solo material. Thus the dancers don’t appear merely as units in a pattern, but as individuals too. Johanne Saunier, with her falls and rolls, seems introspective, while Fumiyo Ikeda is more open, her movements often suggesting a generosity towards the other dancers. The shortest, Marion Levy, is also the sharpest, fleet and mercurial – so much so that I can only think that it must be easier smaller dancers to move speedily.
For some tastes, ‘formalist’ choreography is too dry, and too opaque. Although distinct in form, it is ambiguous in meaning, so it doesn’t seem to be about anything, it’s too ‘abstract’. On one level, of course, it is about itself, its own processes of construction: the focus of the dance is not on what it represents. but on how it is made. To the extent that Toccata’s subject matter is its own structure, it could be called a formalist work. But there is no such thing as pure form, and ultimately nothing is completely formalist: there will always be associations, evocations of moods, suggestions of images, however fleeting or inchoate. The image I often have with this kind of choreography is of the dancers as a society of strange para-human beings, communicating in some highly articulate but only faintly intelligible alien language, and I wonder what is the character of their relations – mechanical, fluid, alienated, and so on – and what sort of language they are using – calming, pleading, threatening, commanding, or whatever. In Toccata, the combination of quirky idiosyncrasy with formal order conjures up a vision of a kind of compassionate utopia. Different personal qualities are freely expressed and relations between dancers are fluid and communicative, yet the movement phrases of each dancer only gain meaning in the context of a wider group. one that is both dynamic and ordered. It suggests both community and individuality: the image of a humane world.
On this point, Toccata invited comparison with La Nebuleuse du Crabe, performed at the same venue a few days earlier by Compagnie Philippe Saire, from Switzerland. Nebuleuse is more literally about a kind of society: a dying one. Nebuleuse, for though in general more theatrical, more narrative, also contains some dances governed by formal rules of action and organisation. But here they do seem to be pointless exercises in pattern-making – though this is the point: they are futile carryings-on in a world that is inexorably decaying. The rules of movement are much simpler than in Toccata, and they are spoken aloud by a figure standing to one side. The dancers simply do the movement, dispassionately, as if obeying orders. The effect is objective, ironic, matter-of-fact. In Toccata, the rules are complex, implicit, unspoken, and thus seem to arise from within the group, not outside it; and its movements are expressive and compassionate. Thus. in contrast with Toccata, the formal dances of Nebuleuse suggest not community, but alienation.
Except in one case: Nebuleuse actually begins with a much more Toccata-like dance, a structured interweaving of vivid movement phrases. But this exhilarating, convivial opening disintegrates into a world shot through with images of death, alienation and futility. It could be a depressing experience, but I found it numbing. Toccata‘s trajectory is wholly different from the explosion-disintegration of Nebuleuse: its vibrant dancing world is suspended like a mirage between moments of spareness: a solo musical opening, and a solo danced ending.
This final solo is, perhaps, also an image of dying; but if so, it’s a very different death from that in Nebuleuse. A woman dressed in white (Marion Ballester) traverses the entrance-and-exit strip behind the main dance floor. She repeats some of the motifs that we have seen throughout the piece, but, restricted now to a single plane of movement, they have lost their former freedom and expansiveness. The music ends, but she continues her slow dance, gradually constraining her travelling until she is moving on the spot. The light fades, but still she continues moving, until we are left finally with only the sounds of her feet treading the board. Despite its sparseness, it’s infinitely more stirring than the more theatrical yet strangely dispassionate Nebuleuse. Rather suffering an alienated death, she seems still connected to those who have danced before, taking with her the memories of the dances they have shared together. And instead of pointlessly fading to nothing, she moves purposefully into the dark and silence.
The word ‘toccata’, an Italian musical term, means ‘touch-piece’. As a style of instrumental writing, it suggests rapidity, clarity and brilliance of execution, and both the choreography and performance of Toccata certainly live up to these connotations. Yet just as Bach’s Toccata reaches beyond technical display, so De Keersmaeker’s Toccata is a ‘touch-piece’ in a different sense of the word: it is moving, poignant. If Nebuleuse had a more specific subject matter, and Achterland was angrier, more anxious, Toccata – despite being sparser, more restrained, and less demonstrative than either of these – nevertheless touched, moved a deeper sense. Relying less on surface shocks and stimulations, its power radiates from a quieter sense of inner strength. Beginning with sound in stillness, and ending with movement in silence, Toccata exists between music and movement, a testimony to De Keersmaeker’s confidence, and to the performers’ commitment, that movement and music can, in themselves and without explanation, speak with power and feeling, and engage both our minds and our imaginations .