You could call them Twilight and Breaking Dawn, but that would be seriously misleading. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s En Atendant (2010) was originally designed to be performed at nightfall, its sequel Cesena (2011) at sunrise – but the connection with the moony vampire teenpic franchise ends there.
Or does it? Granted, De Keersmaeker’s high-minded works will never garner a global fanbase or make megabucks, but beneath the surface you could detect a common interest in some of the same existential themes: the faultline between flesh and spirit, the human and the animal, the forces of life, death, survival and transcendence. The films cushion these inside palatable, glossy narrative packages and aim to give the audience a good time and some kicks, but good-timers and thrill-seekers should avoid De Keersmaeker. She mercilessly exposes the stark bedrock of her material, and the audience can either love it or shove it. At Sadler’s Wells, as usual with De Keersmaeker, plenty of people did indeed shove off. But plenty stayed, transfixed.
The opening of En Atendant exemplifies De Keersmaeker’s unflinching focus. A gaunt man slowly brings a flute to his lips and exhales raggedly into it, producing an escalating series of unearthly noises: the hollow cough of wind in a distant tunnel, then ascending siren whistles and long, rasping sighs like the groans of ghosts. This lasts much longer than is normally bearable – and by the end you’ve either already fallen by the wayside or feel that the very cells of your body have become sensitised, receptive to whatever happens next. This extraordinary prologue in fact foreshadows the work’s recurrent concerns: the coming together of sound and body, of material and supernatural worlds, the sense of flesh as a vessel haunted by a chafing soul.
The staging is stark, the clothing drab. The music, performed live by the trio Ensemble Cours and Coeur, is exquisite, and in the highly elaborated medieval polyphonic style known as ars subtilior. Full of strange cadences and restless counterpoint, it serves as far more than just 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 the base 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, mostly walks in simple lines, like a watcher who also marks time. It is spellbinding; and gratifyingly, De Keersmaeker repeats whole sections turned around so that we get to see them all again from a different angle.
A desperate, feral solo by Bostjan Antoncic shatters the compositional order. It feels as shocking as a desecration but it also lets in more individually expressive dances – of chasing, of hand-holding, or reaching and falling – as well as resonant, almost religious images of passion, suffering, desolation and mercy. These motifs become absorbed back into the ensemble composition, so that the individual voices, both musical and kinetic, appear as part of a grander scheme of things. The sustained scale of vision, incorporating both structural sophistication and intimate detail, is exceptional – nowhere more so than at the end, as the light fades and one naked being disappears into the darkness, leaving only a rasp of breath.
Cesena starts where En Atendant had ended, with a naked man in darkness. Echoing the unnerving sounds opening the earlier work, he heaves eerie noises from his body: foghorn brays, wind-filled wheezes. The live music, from vocal ensemble Graindelavoix, comes from the same 14th-century polyphonic style, and again there is a long walking section, the plain-clothed dancers matching the score note-for-step. Fragments of En Atendant reappear and the lighting, instead of dimming to nothing, starts low and very slowly brightens.
There are many marked departures, most strikingly in the integration of music and dance. Where earlier they were united by compositional structure, here they come together performatively, the singers and dancers mingling on stage and often intermingling roles: one transfixing moment sees the chorus chant as they clump and crumple with the dancers, then lie slowly down to earth, as if singing while dying.
Some of the scenes are opaque, but others are mysteriously enthralling, sometimes ritualistic, often heart-catching. Indeed, with its string of scenes and songs, the whole piece feels like weather: gusts and clusters of activity, changing atmospheres. Such sequencing lacks the underlying structural rigour that had sustained En Atendant, but it also brings sound, sensation and image to the fore, so that the piece seems to operate on a more human scale.
Plenty of people found Cesena to be the greater work, but I preferred En Atendant for its command of composition – a rare choreographic quality. Both brim with self-indulgence, yet also brush the sublime. And both left me desperately wishing that I had seen them at twilight and at dawn in their original settings at the Avignon Festival, surrounded by medieval buildings but open to the sun, the sky, the wind.