Who would have imagined that the creator of Fase (1982) would go on, years later, to make a work like I said I (1999)? The two pieces could scarcely be more different. I said I is a powerful expressionist piece of physical theatre that throws together text, movement and props with a series of disparate musical idioms: a string quartet, avant-garde jazz, a scratch DJ. Its rough-edged sprawl is a world away from the stark minimalism of Fase, with its four tightly constructed episodes for two dancers, set to music by Steve Reich.
Yet those opposing forces – one pulling towards abstract geometry, the other towards passionate drama – are equally important to the work of Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. She had made her first piece, Asch (1980) after training at the Mudra school in Brussels, but it was with Fase, created on her return to Belgium after two years’ study at the Tisch School of Performing Arts in New York, that the young choreographer, still only 22 years old, made her first breakthrough.
Fase takes its cue from Steve Reich’s music, repeated rhythmic phrases that gradually move in and out of phase with each other. In each section, the two dancers (De Keersmaeker and Michèle Anne de Mey) start in synchrony, repeating short segments of movement, and then gradually, imperceptibly, diverge from each other. On one level, it is an obsessive, cerebral study in rhythm and pattern, the dancers tenaciously recycling their phrases within a deliberately limited range of movements. But look closer, and there are already hints of an opposing tendency. The movements are often made of naturalistic gestures, and there are dramatic overtones to the different sections – one has the menacing ambience of a prison interrogation, while another suggests blithely cheerful schoolgirls endlessly practising their skipping games.
a flouncy pleasure in the way their skirts swish and their hair swings as they turn
That more expressive theatrical tendency was to grow stronger in De Keersmaeker’s subsequent pieces, though still remaining tied to a taut formal rigour. Bartôk/Mikrokosmos (1987), for example, features a squad of four women, identically dressed in skirts and lace-up ankle boots, often dancing in close rhythmic unison. But their drilled, almost military discipline is offset by displays of ‘femininity’: slinky tip-toe strutting, cheeky flashes of white knickers, a flouncy pleasure in the way their skirts swish and their hair swings as they turn. The image was so striking that for a while it became almost emblematic of De Keersmaeker’s work.
Like many contemporary female choreographers, De Keersmaeker began with an all-woman company. It was only after 1987, with Mikrokosmos, that men joined her ensemble; and she often played on sexual stereotyping in her choreography and in her choice of costume. In Achterland (1990), for example, the women are squeezed into tight skirts, stalking the stage in spiky stilettos, while one of the men mimics the hip-twitching dance of the women. But the women are never simply feminine parodies. Hurling themselves to the floor and slicing the air with their limbs, they are also fierce, driven creatures, radiating a forceful energy.
By the end of the 1980s, De Keersmaeker had emerged as the foremost of what had become a veritable new wave of contemporary dance in Belgium, including choreographers such as Alain Platel, Jan Fabre and Wim Vandekeybus. Having been given considerable support throughout the decade by the Kaaitheater in Brussels, in 1992 De Keersmaeker and her company Rosas were invited to take up residence at Belgium’s national opera house, the Théâtre de la Monnaie. Here, in 1995, she also set up PARTS (Performing Arts Research and Training Studios), a school that provides a training in dance techniques alongside a thorough grounding in music, theatre and performance. With a resident contemporary music group (Ictus), with more resources available and with greater security, De Keersmaeker was able to create larger, more ambitious works, as well as to experiment more with music, theatre, film and text.
Music has been a driving force, and musicians are frequently placed on stage, given a prominent place in the choreography.
But alongside De Keersmaeker’s growing theatricality and interest in multimedia, there remained nevertheless a strong link to abstraction, to dance as form, shape and rhythm, often inspired by music. Music, in fact, has been a driving force for her work, and musicians are frequently placed on stage, given a prominent place in the choreography. An example is Toccata (1993), set to Bach. The stage is raised to the height of the grand piano, tilted and shaped to its raised lid – so that the performers seem to dance not simply to the music, but almost on top of it. A total contrast to the edgy, even violent theatrics of Achterland, Toccata is a beautifully realised suite of dances. Taking its cue from the patterns and paths of the music, the dancers evoke an almost mystical human world, lovingly suffused with the spirit of Bach’s transcendent music.
Drumming, from 1998, is also an abstract work, here set to music by Steve Reich. An opening solo forms the basis of an hour-long dance, and all the subsequent movements are repetitions, variations and recombinations derived from that kernel – like seeing the world in a grain of sand. Though the idea may seem starkly cerebral, the result is sensually breathtaking, the initial solo unravelling into living tapestries of movement as the dancers pour across the stage with rag-doll abandon. Combining keen intellect with pure joy in motion, Drumming is an exhilarating, uplifting experience.
Though De Keersmaeker often treads a path between pure dance and physical theatre, she has also explored the relation between movement and other media, particularly text and film. Some of her works have included video projections within the performance (such as Woud, 1996), while several pieces have transferred very successfully onto film.
Text has also become more important in the recent cycle of works beginning with Just Before (1997). Here she collaborated with her sister Jolente De Keersmaeker and the Stan theatre collective, using Peter Handke’s 1966 play Selbstbezichtigung (Self-accusation) as a starting point. Working from the text, the dancers improvised on the idea of personal memory, creating individual spoken texts on this theme. The collaboration with Jolente De Keersmaeker and Stan continued in 1999 with Quartett, based on a text by Heiner Müller, with I Said I and most recently with In Real Time (2000).
I Said I is a return to Peter Handke’s Self-accusation. But whereas in the earlier Just Before the dancers had composed their own texts on the theme of personal memory, I Said I quotes directly from Handke’s play, and is concerned overwhelmingly with group mentality, rules of social behaviour, the oppressive and sometimes brutal demands of conformity.
As they order and re-order the stage props, the dancers describe how each individual enters the social world, learns the rules of language, the codes of conduct. That world grows gradually more menacing, more threatening to individuality, punishing nonconformity and hounding scapegoats.
With music by scratch artist DJ Grazzhoppa, contemporary music ensemble Ictus and jazz group Aka Moon, I Said I is De Keersmaeker’s most searingly visceral piece of physical theatre, pushing the dancers to the limits of performance.
a deep commitment to music, a tenacious grip on the form and shape of movement, a natural facility with gesture, an instinctive sense of physical theatre.
As if in counterpoint, De Keersmaeker’s recent piece Rain (2001) is another abstract work, returning full circle to the music of Steve Reich. Looking back nearly 20 years to Fase, you could never have foreseen the varied and unpredictable paths that De Keersmaeker was to make in that journey. But you could perhaps discern in Fase the seeds that De Keersmaeker was to cultivate in such diverse ways: a deep commitment to music, a tenacious grip on the form and shape of movement, a natural facility with gesture, and an instinctive sense of physical theatre.