As a gaunt man slowly raises a flute and exhales into it raggedly, an unearthly noise emerges: a blend of ascending siren whistles and long, rasping sighs like the groans of ghosts. This extraordinary opening to Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s En Atendant foreshadows the work’s concerns: the coming together of sound and body, of the material and supernatural; the sense of flesh as a vessel haunted by a chafing soul.
The staging is stark: a bench, a lightstrip, a line of dry earth. The exquisite music, performed live by Ensemble Cours et Coeur, is in the highly elaborated medieval polyphonic style known as ars subtilior, and serves as model for rather than accompaniment to the dance (which is in any case often performed in silence). Chrysa Parkinson’s solemn opening solo of plain walks, coltish runs and fleeting gestures becomes source material for a kind of choreographic polyphony, each dancer embodying a different “voice” within a composition of subtle symmetries and passing encounters, while one man, Carlos Garbin, walks among them in simple lines, both watcher and timekeeper. It is spellbinding. Gratifyingly, De Keersmaeker repeats whole sections turned around, so we get to see them all again from a different angle.
An untamed solo by Boštjan Antoncic breaks the spell, as he tramples unheeding over the line of earth; but it also lets in more individually expressive dances – of chasing, hand-holding, reaching and falling – as well as grander, almost religious imagery of passion, abjection and mercy.
En Atendant is demanding of its audience. If your attention wanders, you may lose your grip on it altogether. But its orchestration of structural sophistication, intimate detail and sweeping vision is exceptional, especially at the end, as the light fades and one naked being disappears into darkness, leaving only the rasp of breath.