De Keersmaeker’s signature piece, Rosas Danst Rosas
A difficult choreographer with a popular following, a minimalist with a tendency to dramatise, a reticent person with a lot to say … Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker is a fascinating contradiction.
Born in 1960 in Mechelen, Belgium, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker studied music as a child and at the age of 18 went to the Mudra dance school in Brussels. There she made her first piece, a solo titled Asch (1980), and met composer and film-maker Thierry de Mey, who became her artistic collaborator and introduced her to the music of Steve Reich.
In 1980, she went to the Tisch School of the Arts in New York, met some of Reich’s musicians and began choreographing to his music. In 1982 she presented Fase, an evening-length piece with music by Reich, performed by herself and Michèle Anne de Mey (Thierry’s sister) in Belgium. Austere, demanding and riveting, it was a sensation. A major new choreographer seemed to have sprung, fully formed, from nowhere.
The following year, De Keersmaeker founded her own company, Rosas, with three other women. Their first work, Rosas Danst Rosas, became a signature piece, giving the company a distinctive female look: full skirts, tomboyish boots, squadron formations. Initially given considerable support by the Kaaitheater in Brussels, from 1992 to 2007 Rosas became the resident company at the Théâtre de la Monnaie, following the departure of Mark Morris. With a resident contemporary music group (Ictus), more resources and greater stability, De Keersmaeker was able to create larger, more ambitious works and experiment with theatre, text and film. She has also directed opera, and many of her works have been adapted for the screen (including one piece by Peter Greenaway).
In 1995, she set up Parts (Performing Arts Research and Training Studios), a major international school that provides a multidisciplinary education in music, theatre and critical theory alongside dance training.
Belgium had little modern dance to speak of before the 1980s. Maurice Béjart dominated the scene; although in no way conventional, he was essentially a ballet choreographer. De Keersmaeker changed that. By the end of the 80s, she had not only made an impact on the international stage, but also opened the floodgates within Belgium. There followed a veritable wave of Belgian experimentalists, including Wim Vandekeybus, Jan Fabre, Alain Platel and later Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Together, they have made Belgium a world player in modern dance.
Watching Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker
De Keersmaeker’s early work Fase, based on the compositional methods of Steve Reich, is illustrative of her style. On one level, it is an obsessive, cerebral study in pattern. Yet it also uses naturalistic gestures and steps, creating a dramatic undertow and emotional nuance. The linchpins to De Keersmaeker’s work are close, structural relations to music and a tension between two sometimes contradictory impulses: formalism and expressionism.
In the company’s early years, De Keersmaeker made distinctive all-female quartets, their drilled discipline offset by displays of “femininity”: tip-toe strutting, swishy skirts and swinging hair. When men joined the company in 1987, she became more obviously concerned with gender roles and experimented with cross-dressing. She also developed a vigorous, sometimes violent style of action that she has since left behind, although many of her pieces still require a great deal of stamina.
She also began to add more layers to the work – text, voice, film – sometimes producing work that was closer to experimental theatre than dance. In between her most theatrical works, she returned to pieces based on a wide variety of music (Bach, Beethoven and Bartók to Joan Baez, John Coltrane and Indian classical music). The composer she is most closely associated with is Steve Reich.
Composition is key. In many of De Keersmaeker’s works, there is a tension between order and disorder – complexity glimpsed at the chaos like patterns in rain, or disturbances appearing in machine-like patterns as if spanners thrown into works. Don’t expect an easy time with De Keersmaeker. She can be high-minded and demanding – and you’ll need to be attentive – but the rewards are great.
Michèle Anne de Mey, Cynthia Loemij, Fumiyo Ikeda and Vincent Dunoyer were prominent dancers from the early years of the company. Thierry de Mey has worked frequently with De Keersmaeker as a composer and film-maker. Ictus Ensemble is the regular music group for Rosas. Fashion designer Dries van Noten is their regular costume designer.
Steve Reich’s “jaw dropped” when he saw De Keersmaeker’s work for the first time. He had known of her since the early 80s (“some woman with a very long name”) but hadn’t seen any of her work until a performance of Fase in 1999. “Of all the choreography done to my music,” he said, “this was by far the best thing I’d seen … it was all analogous to the music. On an emotional and psychological level I felt I’d learned something about my own work.”
In her own words
“Dance is a language, and as in love, the most beautiful things are said through the body. I continue to be obsessed by the art of writing dance as we write music, in time and space.” – Interview from 2006
“I’m obsessed by structures. But the most beautiful experience is to see such a construction generating something intangible, elusive – an emotion.” – Interview with Nadine Meisner, Independent, 1999
“I have a love-hate relationship with [unison and repetition]. In some pieces I use them a lot; in others I don’t. What I like about them is the way you can make one thing more emphatic, but also how you can point to small distinctions when different bodies execute the same movement.” – Interview with Rita Felciano, Dance Magazine, 1998
In other words
“A choreographer who makes you think and feel at the same time and who makes you conscious of both processes is rare. Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker … turns out to be a member of that special breed.” – Anna Kisselgoff, New York Times, 1986
“Put Fase, please, on the list of postmodern greats … a stunning image of daring within order and turbulence within calm … Remember when beauty of form could practically bring you to tears?” – Deborah Jowitt, Village Voice, 1998
“Some of the dancers are individually so fabulous that it is easy to get a crush on them. But it is the group that is the ultimate star, the Rosas collective that ends up being far more than the sum of its 10 members.” – Judith Mackrell, Guardian, 2002
“Consistently commands, challenges, enlightens and uplifts.”
Well, that’s what I said.
“Anne Teresa de Tearjerker.”
Not funny, not clever – and already used by Mark Morris when he arrived in Brussels in 1988.
American minimalists Yvonne Rainer and Lucinda Childs (in dance) and Steve Reich (in music). William Forsythe has, like De Keersmaeker, developed from a rigorously formal starting point to experimenting with layers of theatricality and different media.
Now watch this
The opening section of Fase (1982), with De Keersmaeker and Michèle Anne de Mey
The several pieces that made up De Keersmaeker’s Steve Reich evening (2007)
A Love Supreme (2005), inspired by John Coltrane
Counter Phrases (2000), in which different composers were invited to make scores for sections of an existing piece of choreography, thus reversing the more usual choreographer-composer relationship.
Where to see her next
See the Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker/Rosas website for performance dates.