Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker avoids the middle ground: she can switch from rigorous formalism to overblown multimedia theatrics. And, following her recent large group works, she has moved to the small scale, bringing a duet and now a solo to London, inspired by her childhood memories of listening to Joan Baez.
De Keersmaeker opens Once casually, kicking off her shoes and then standing in silence, as if uncertain how to start. Like the intent, serious child she must surely have been, she gradually begins to move, testily, without settling. She folds her hips or presses out her hands, legs buckling into a sudden crouch, arms swinging like an afterthought. These hesitant, ambivalent moves form the fabric of the rest of the piece, played to a recording of Baez in concert, with lyrics projected on to the back wall. The words meant nothing to De Keersmaeker as a child, and I soon begin to wish she hadn’t learned English. For, although she is captivating as the gauche, uncomprehending girl doodling in solitude to Baez’s incandescent voice or skipping to her plucky guitar, she also begins to mime to the words – especially in Mockingbird and Pretty Peggy – which reduces the dance to a gloss.
she begins to mime to the words, which reduces the dance to a gloss
For We Shall Overcome and Battle Hymn of the Republic, De Keersmaeker cannily fades out the sound, mouthing and singing the words, so they seem like a frail, failed echo of the forgotten idealism once expressed in those anthems. The piece ends with a film projection, a battle scene from DW Griffiths’s classic Birth of a Nation, as Baez, and then Bob Dylan, assure us that if God is on our side he’ll stop the next war. Once was conceived before 9/11 and premiered before the Iraq war; although it is a patchy and sometimes frustrating dancework, it nevertheless hits a raw contemporary nerve.