Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Vortex Temporum is like a dissection in reverse: it starts by showing the hidden workings of its inner parts, and only at the end do they gel into a recognisable whole. The parts might be called dance and music, but that would be simplistic. De Keersmaeker is far more forensic, more microscopic in her focus: she is interested in the interactions of textures and timbres, pitch and position, in temporal intervals and spatial harmonics, in the synergies between playing and moving.
That sounds complicated – and it is – but De Keersmaeker is as clear as she can be. On a bare stage, the piece begins with seven members of music ensemble Ictus playing Gérard Grisey’s 1996 composition Vortex Temporum. It’s an astringent, abrasive piece. Over an insistently repeated anchor note on the piano, high, clashing arpeggios in the woodwind are sounded simultaneously and then subside, like sonic splashes that hit suddenly and die slowly. After a murkier, more sustained section dominated by the strings, the instrumentalists exit the stage to leave pianist Jean-Luc Plouvier in a combative solo of chord clusters that he rounds off with an abrupt thump like a pianistic door slam; and he exits himself.
Now, De Keersmaeker introduces the dancers, seven of them, in the same positions as the musicians had been, the dancer at the piano slightly outside the circle. It is much harder to see the dance composition than to hear the musical one; nevertheless, you sense rather than see a logic in their slow downward rolls, in the ripples and contractions of action, in the organised tilts and torques of their bodies, all accompanied only by the squeak of their sneakers and the pant of their breath. Just as the musicians had done, the dancers gradually exit, leaving the man at the piano in a convoluted solo of directional switches, rapid rolls and flat-footed jumps. It’s almost illegibly complex – until the pianist returns to reprise his solo, and you see, with a shock of revelation, how exactly this dense dance corresponds to that dense music. At which point your mind runs back over the whole section, retrospectively trying to hear the music in its movement. For although they have been presented separately, you realise that dance and music have been occupying the same field all along.
It’s oddly spacey, even a little Space Oddity… everyone seems to be driftily orbiting around a centre of gravity that is itself drifting in orbit.
And so, a connection is established between sound and movement. De Keersmaeker, characteristically, has made you work to arrive at this point, but such hard-won rewards are strangely satisfying: you’ve earned them. She eases up in the next section, as music and movement, dancers and instrumentalists join together, walking in slow, shifting spirals around the piano as it is wheeled around the stage. It’s oddly spacey, even a little Space Oddity: there’s no ground control here, as everyone seems to be driftily orbiting around a centre of gravity – the piano – that is itself drifting in orbit. The stark stage lights track the piano like a dimming sun while the pianist strikes descending progressions of mysterious chords, the dancers and musicians rotating around him like a galaxy circling a dying star. This is the music, and the motion, of the spheres.
In the final section, everything is more recognisable. The dancers are in the foreground, the musicians accompany them from the back. The music itself reprises the first section, with interpolations from the cosmic chords. The dance melds the tilts, jumps and rolls of its first silent section with the spiralling paths of the planetarium episode. It’s a brilliant composition, and you wouldn’t see it so clearly if De Keersmaeker hadn’t already laid out the steps leading up to it. Yet, it’s also music and dance working together, not simplistically, by any means, but more conventionally. So although the ending may be the necessary resolution of Vortex Temporum, the best part – at least on first viewing – is not this final synthesis of music and dance but the exposure to the inner workings of sound and movement that we have had to work to get to, and the surrender to De Keersmaeker’s tenacious dissection of her compositional components.