To put Drumming in context you need to go back to 1982, when a 21-year-old Belgian choreographer, fresh out of college, presented her first professional work, Fase: Four Movements to Music by Steve Reich. The axis of the dance world tilted a little. It was such a gripping, rigorously composed piece, and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker seemed to have sprung fully formed from nowhere. Fase remains as spellbinding today as it must have been then, and it bore the mark of what would become some of De Keersmaeker’s most enduring qualities: a tenacious mind, unafraid to push ideas to their limit; a director’s eye not just for choreography, but for staging; above all, a diviner’s ability to tap the deep synergy between dance and music.
Drumming, made in 1998, is a direct descendent of Fase. The music is again by Steve Reich – the composer De Keersmaeker has most often returned to – and again it is in four sections. But it is an altogether more expansive piece, and to understand why, it helps to see how the dance and music work together. The early Reich compositions used in Fase are built on the principle of phasing: two identical sound loops played at slightly different speeds so that they gradually go out of synch, producing weird time-warps, echoes and shift effects. With Fase, De Keersmaeker didn’t so much match the notes as follow the same principle, creating complex duets by looping cells of movement while accumulating minute variations of timing, action and direction.
as scintillating, as unpredictable and as organised as patterns made by sunlight on water
Drumming also uses phase processes, but on an amplified scale. There are three sets of percussion instruments, made of skin (bongos), wood (marimbas) and metal (glockenspiels). The entire piece is generated from a single short rhythmic pattern that is built up first on the bongos, then doubled, then phased, and then faded out as the marimbas fade in to repeat the cycle in a new timbre. The marimba cycle then gives way to the glockenspiels, and in the final section all the instruments play simultaneously. It’s all highly logical, formally clear and totally mind-boggling – as scintillating, as unpredictable and as organised as patterns made by sunlight on water.
De Keersmaeker’s choreography is just as poetic, and just as programmed. Pay attention to the opening solo, on a narrow line across the stage, because the entire dance is contained within it. Just as Reich’s little rhythmic pattern seeds a world of sound, this nucleus generates a kind of choreographic cosmos. Its actions – swivels and swings, frog hops and flick-kicks, piston limbs and jiggling jumps – are its atoms. They link up, they multiply, they combine and recombine into compounds and clusters, they pulse with energy and spark off reactions. They criss-cross in lines, spin out in spirals and accelerate into orbit around the stage. If Fase had seen De Keersmaeker following single lines of thought, Drumming is like the multi-dimensional version, its source solo expanding in all directions.
It’s breathtaking, like seeing the world in a grain of sand – but wait, there’s more. Like Reich, De Keersmaeker builds up three overlapping cycles, each with a different texture, and then combines them in the final section. As all the musicians return along the back of the stage, both music and dance reveal all their layers. The result is dense and complex, and miraculously lucid. In a glance, you sense, simultaneously, the particles and the people and the patterns that connect them. It’s a visionary, mind-expanding experience. And the tingling sensation you feel, even after Drumming has ended – what is that? That is every cell in your body, vibrating.