Some dancegoers like choreography that comes out to meet them, introduces itself, and generally pays attention to them. It’s only civil, really. Well, unless you’re made of sterner stuff than that, you might want to give Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker a miss. She’s not that interested in being civil; actually, she’s not that interested in you. But if you get over yourself – and have the mettle – you might find yourself interested in her.
A season of four of her early works showed exactly why you might be put off and why you might be hooked (exactness and contradiction are, incidentally, prime De Keersmaeker qualities). Fase was De Keersmaeker’s first professional piece, made in 1982 when she was just 21 years old – an astonishingly accomplished debut. Set to four pieces of music by Steve Reich, it echoes Reich’s technique of constructing complex compositions from the simplest elements. The first duet (performed by De Keersmaeker herself, with Tale Doven) is built from a swinging arm, a pivot turn, a little suspension, a skip and a twist – and that’s about it.
Yet it’s a masterclass in composition in which every change registers as a tiny shock of difference. On the backcloth, the dancers’ shadows multiply so that the duet sometimes looks like a trio, a quartet or a sextet. ‘Come Out’ sees them on chairs beneath stark lights, as if in an interrogation room, and as the two women gesture, flinch and swivel, you feel like an interrogator yourself, cross-examining the repetitive, fragmentary evidence of their actions. In the solo ‘Violin Phase’, De Keersmaeker strictly maps out the centre, radius and circumference of a circle, lightly sexing up her deadpan phrases with hip wriggles, then arm flourishes and finally knicker-flashes. ‘Clapping Music’ sees the pair bouncing like minimalist cheerleaders. Upbeat but severe, it’s as near as De Keersmaeker gets to a crowd-pleasing finale. Like Reich’s music, Fase makes you aware of material and pattern – like seeing both wood and trees – but you have to pay attention: its rewards are earnt, not handed out.
In Rosas Danst Rosas (1983), De Keersmaeker again obsessively follows a repetitive pattern. This female quartet begins with an excruciating period of silence, during which the women shuffle through a restricted set of moves and postures – a gasping grasp, a backwards fall, a sphinx-like pose. An age later, Thierry de Mey’s brutalist industrial score kicks in, and the piece moves from a sequence on chairs – punchy jabs and swivels intercut with “feminine” gestures (smoothing hair, cupping a breast) – to an endlessly repeated line-up of swings and pivots. Twice, a woman comes to the fore, exposing and covering up her shoulder, and we sense both the sexless vulnerability of the gesture and sexualised voyeurism it reveals. Again, De Keersmaeker gives you a double vision: on the one hand, a kind of impersonal feminine machinery; on the other, neurosis, mania, grit.
Elena’s Aria (1984) is a diffferent take on feminised minimalism. Its framework is sparse: an array of chairs mostly facing backwards, which over the length of the piece are rotated round and moved forwards; a table where each of the four female dancers will read a text extract (in different languages) evoking a departed love; distant fragments of operatic arias; and a severely curtailed palette of moves – high-heeled teeters, skirt-lifts, splay-legged slumps. The effect is a studied feminine ennui, the performers holding themselves in stylised poses even as they seem to be imploding inside, like the dynamited buildings that fleetingly appear on some silent film footage. It’s a long haul though: we seem to need as much stamina as De Keersmaeker has to last the course.
The final work, Bartók/Mikrokosmos (1987), is more rewarding though no less uncompromising. The musicians’ presence on stage (pianists for the first part, a string quartet for the second) points to the score as the point of departure, from which the dance builds its own choreographic microcosms: first a sparring male-female duet, then a skirted and booted girlie-gang, like an elite squad drilled in flouncy mannerisms. The dancing itself becomes a kind of music, with quavering runs, catch-up cadences, stroppy downbeats and pizzicato knickerflashes. The rigorous clarity of both form and imagery is at once dense with suggestion and intellectually bracing.
Together, these works reveal the genesis of De Keersmaeker’s recurrent and often conflicting concerns: the relations between music and movement, between gesture and gender, the formal qualities of different media (sound, text, image, action), the knife-edge between objective and subjective modes of expression. Above all, you become aware of her tenacious pursuit of her own ideas. That’s the source of her power, the reason she’s still going strong 30 years down the line. Of course, that single-minded determination is also why she has regular walk-outs from the public – for inevitably some of her audience (including me, sometimes) find it tough going to keep up with her. Wimps.