In January this year, spectators at the New York Museum of Modern Art were mesmerised by a solo dancer: it was 51-year-old Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, in her 20-minute Violin Phase. To music by Steve Reich, she performed on a square of sand, like a little stretch of beach stranded in a gallery. As the dance went on – rigorously geometrical, with flashes of shy humour and humanity – her footsteps began to form a ragged roseate pattern, like a flower blooming in the desert.
For many, this was a thrillingly new experience; for others, it rekindled old memories. Village Voice dance critic Deborah Jowitt was one of them, having seen Violin Phase when it was first performed, 30 years previously, during De Keersmaeker’s year as a student at New York University. “I feel my breath and heartbeat and mind resonating with the recollection of that long-ago day,” wrote Jowitt, remembering that “the audience sat dumbfounded; it was as if a new species of choreographer had appeared out of nowhere.”
Where had De Keersmaeker come from? In factual terms: she was born in 1960 in Mechelen, Belgium, studied music as a child, then dance at Maurice Béjart’s Mudra school of dance in Brussels, and at New York University. In artistic terms, though, “out of nowhere” is not so far from the truth – as Hugo De Greef, De Keersmaeker’s first presenter, remembers. He too was in the audience on that long-ago day, a young festival producer who had been so struck by De Keersmaeker’s first student work in Brussels the previous year that he decided to support this unknown choreographer. “You have to realise,” he says, “that at the time there really was no contemporary dance in Belgium. Nothing, nothing, nothing. There was the modern ballet of Maurice Béjart –, and that was all. Anne Teresa had come through Béjart’s school and studied in New York, but even her first work Asch was very different. She really came out of nothing.”
Asch – or, to give its full title, Asch, the stunned amazement of a small, wilful girl and a big, injured pilot, a theatre project in which the performance of a dancer and an actor meet – was new to De Greef in several ways. “It was by this new, unknown artist,” he says. “It wasn’t really like a dance: there is movement in it, but the performers act. And it was performed in a different place, an old glassworks building.” Violin Phase was another surprise: though prefigured in one section of Asch, it was an altogether different kind of work. Exactingly danced and rigorously composed to reflect the iterative structures of Reich’s music, it might be called a theatre project in which the performance of a dancer and a musician meet.
Music, theatre, dance, performance, composition – with hindsight, you can see that the essential components of her art form were to become the abiding themes of De Keersmaeker’s work; characteristic too, was her ability to switch register between one piece and the next.
At that time, of course, no one knew what was to come. “There was no plan, no long-term vision,” says De Greef. “We were young, dynamic, we just wanted to do things our own way.” As director of the Kaaitheater festival in Brussels, he helped to present De Keersmaeker’s first professional work in 1982, Fase: Four Movements to Music by Steve Reich, an expansion of Violin Phase performed by De Keersmaeker and her former Mudra colleague Michèle Anne De Mey.
It had very mixed response. Some were transfixed, others walked out. De Greef was singularly undeterred. “In the early days we were always wondering: how will the audience react today?” he laughs. “But the audience was learning to look. Perceptions were developing.”
Besides, De Greef had managed to impress both some local cultural centres and some international curators. Among them was Val Bourne, director of London’s Dance Umbrella festival, who remembers the occasion vividly: “Hugo told me there’s a young choreographer I really want you to see, and before I knew it I was bundled into this car and driven to this suburb of Brussels. The theatre was full of old ladies with bags and shopping trolleys, who were obviously there just to get warm! They talked through the whole thing, with Hugo occasionally jabbing them in the back to get them to shut up. Despite all the distraction, it was completely clear that this was something really special.”
And so Bourne introduced De Keersmaeker to the UK in 1982, initiating a long association with Dance Umbrella. “Fase was the last performance of a very long, drawn-out festival,” she remembers, “so everyone turned up rather dragging their feet. But it had a rapturous reception. The dancers were so young, and they looked really quite gauche in their dresses, socks and plimsolls. But what they did had such sophistication, it was so accurate and intense. People were amazed.”
De Keersmaeker founded her own company, Rosas, the following year, at first for women only, and including men from 1987. Supported by Kaaitheater during its first decade, Rosas grew rapidly to become a flagship national company, taking up residence at the opera house De Munt/La Monnaie in Brussels from 1992 to 2007, though its path was not always smooth (in 1988 the entire Mark Morris Dance Group, then resident at the opera house, pointedly clattered out of a performance of De Keersmaeker’s dance-opera Ottone, Ottone).
De Keersmaeker’s ascendance also heralded a remarkable flowering of Belgian (particularly Flemish) contemporary dance, comprising choreographers such as Alain Platel of Les Ballets C de la B, Wim Vandekeybus and Jan Fabre. De Keersmaeker set up her own school, PARTS, in 1994, which has become an important international centre for dance and arts education; Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Akram Khan are among the choreographers who have passed through its doors. Within a few years, Belgium had become a world player in the field of contemporary dance, with an influence that extends far beyond its borders. The Belgian “new wave” was, for example, one of the inspirations which made Alistair Spalding, the director of Sadler’s Wells, decide to move out of theatre and into dance in the early 1990s.
The Belgian choreographers are an eclectic group, but perhaps what marks De Keersmaeker from the others is an interest in composition and in musical structures. That hardly defines her work though, which encompasses a phenomenal range: minimalist dances to multimedia productions full of film and text; music from Bach to John Coltrane to Indian ragas; small-scale solos to large-scale operas; expressionist theatre to formalist composition. Yet underlying this variety are some constants: the single-mindedness of her approach, the sophistication of her creations, the accuracy and intensity their performance. The results can be very demanding of her audiences – don’t go to De Keersmaeker for an easy time – but they are, as Bourne says, “always worthwhile, whether or not they are popular or critical successes. And you can’t say that about every choreographer.”
In the four early pieces presented in this season – Fase, Rosas Danst Rosas, Elena’s Aria and Bartók/Mikrokosmos – you can see the genesis of this influential body of work. “They are part of art history,” says De Greef, now president of the PARTS school. “It’s important to revisit important pieces, because their value is not restricted to the time they were made. A new generation who knows nothing about them can see their evolution, begin to make sense of where they came from.”
Bourne goes further. “Dance generations are short,” she says. “You think of a generation as maybe 18 or 20 years, but in dance I’m not even sure it’s 10. So this programme really puts the work in context, shows a journey that has been made.”
It’s true: the tide of time washes over dance very quickly. Dance leaves traces like footsteps in sand, and seeing De Keersmaeker’s early works lets us divine a pattern in them, lets us feel their imprint again.