Focus Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker (Eng.)

Kaaitheater bulletin Nov 2002English

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Dance, like all arts, is after all a form of secret writing. Every dance movement is a hieroglyphic: the dancer writes in hieroglyphics and no one writes more fleetingly than the dancer and no one writes more clearly for those who have learnt to understand him, because he has always written with his blood and his body, with no other instrument. He is man himself, speechless, pure body.

(J.W.F. Werumeus Buning, Terpsichore of over de dans. In memoriam Anna Pawlowa).

In the twenty years of Rosas’ existence, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker has built up a body of work that is so broad and so multifacetted that it is hard to capture it in these few pages. We are therefore adjusting our focus and zooming in on a single aspect of her work that is very evident in Once, a new solo which she is dancing herself. It is that of the storyteller and storytelling, the dancer developing a discourse through his body.


Dancing oneself / dancing alone

The willingness to be on stage oneself and to like doing so has always been a motivation in De Keersmaeker’s work. If you do not start out from an existing system of movement (such as classical ballet) it is obvious that in your initial projects you have to look for an idiom of movement of your own, one that can originate only in your own body. As De Keersmaeker says, ‘Your vocabulary is your blood, your bones, what is most personal to you, what defines the soul of the performance.’ In her early period, comprising Asch (1980), Fase (1982), Rosas danst Rosas (1983), Elena’s Aria (1984) and Bartók/Aantekeningen (1986), De Keersmaeker was concerned with this personal idiom both as a choreographer and as a performer on stage. In the following period, which included a.o. Ottone Ottone (1988), Stella (1990), Achterland (1990) and Mozart/Concert Arias (1992), she worked primarily with material that her dancers supplied, giving it form and direction. After this phase of ‘opening up towards others’ came one of ‘closing oneself’: a return to what emerged from her own individual language of movement; in Toccata (1993) she appeared on stage as a dancer once again and she has continued to do this regularly ever since. With the creation of the duet Small hands (out of the lie of no) in 2001 and the solo Once this year, it seems that the desire to appear on stage with fewer people and ultimately alone is gaining strength. There have been solos before of course: in Asch, Violin Phase (integrated into Fase), the film Tippeke (integrated into Woud), and other pieces.


Telling a story

When, in jazz, one of the musicians in a group ‘claims’ the space for a solo, they say, ‘he has to tell a story’. Playing a solo means telling a story. The others let him go his own way for a while and do not interrupt but let him write/describe. ‘Ecrire, c’est une façon de parler sans être interrompu,’ said the French writer Jules Renard. A solo is a monologue in which the narrator seeks the meaning of his own or any story. To get a hold on it. Telling a story is after all applying a structure to it(weghalen), so that you can attach a meaning to your own or others’ experiences.
In Once, the starting point for De Keersmaeker’s dance is the record Joan Baez in Concert, part 2, with songs about love and war, and also war as an interference in the individual’s life. Sometimes the movements she has devised run parallel with the words sung, sometimes they follow a logic of their own. Or else they comment on the lyrics. Or even try to erase them. A sung story, a danced solo: they are both soliloquies. In songs it is usually ‘the other’ who leaves; the narrator is the one who stays. ‘Le discours amoureux est aujourd’hui d’une extrême solitude,’ says Roland Barthes. ‘Savoir qu’on n’écrit pas pour l’autre, savoir que ces choses que je vais écrire ne me feront jamais aimer de qui j’aime, savoir que l’écriture ne compense rien, ne sublime rien, qu’elle est précisément là où tu n’est pas - c’est le commencement de l’écriture.’


Storytelling in dance

The classical dance repertoire, certainly in its most romantic period, includes many narrative ballets. The best known is undoubtedly Swan Lake, but there is also Giselle, The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote, La fille mal gardée, Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and many others. This despite the fact that with its abstract vocabulary, classical ballet is not a very suitable means of telling stories. The prince and the princess dance a long pas-de-deux with plenty of portées and pirouettes and this represents the moment they declare their love for each other.
In addition to its classical basis, De Keersmaeker’s dance idiom has also been influenced by expressionist dance (mainly German) and American modernism and postmodernism. These influences blend with the entirely individual movements that originated in her own body to form a single language. One of these constituent elements may come to the fore, depending on what it is the choreographer wants to convey.
A sequence of movements that points more to the abstract classical idiom may be followed or interrupted by more emotional and recognisable gestures charged with expression. In Once, De Keersmaeker is looking, within the given space, for a grand abstract architecture, which she builds up and also constantly demolishes, an architecture that may be both classical and expressionist in nature. (cf. Laban’s twenty-sided sphere within which he considered all movements should be possible).



While working, dancers often imitate their foot movements with their hands to explain the steps to each other. The hands and arms are among the most expressive parts of our body and are also set in motion in our everyday lives so as to press home a story or to emphasise the importance of particular words. In De Keersmaeker’s work, hands and arms often play a leading part: the arms sometimes initiate a movement, exert traction or willpower, and the rest of the body will follow. These hand and arm movements are among the most individual and most expressionist parts of her vocabulary and as such are sometimes isolated from the rest of the body. But it is not only the hands that are given a status of their own: for example, in Stella De Keersmaeker created a choreography for no more than Carlotta Sagna’s facial expressions; in Achterland, the dancers, on their wooden platforms, let just their feet dance.
The movements of hands and arms are often associated with the use of words, as in the short film Tippeke, perhaps the most explicit attempt to dance a story in the whole of her work, with the dancer even speaking the words herself. Sometimes the hands’ assistance of the words literally becomes a writing of words in space, as in Asch and Bartók/Aantekeningen. Or else there is the sign-language used in Amor Constante mas alla de la muerte, and in Mozart/Concert Arias, or the dialogue the two dancers carry on with their two hands at the end of Small Hands (out of the lie of no)… De Keersmaeker tells us, ‘I have heard that in China schoolchildren learn the difficult letters by writing them in the air with their arms. They go though the same movements, altogether, over and over again. Rhythmically. Like gymnastics. They learn the words by way of their bodies.’



In Twee eeuwen danskunst en curiositeit, J.W.F. Werumeus Buning tells the story of a French dancing couple, sometime in the 18th century, who, after celebrating triumphs on the Paris stage, retreated to the countryside and built a small theatre in their mansion there. They continued to dance their repertoire on this small stage, even though the former virtuosity had long departed their stiff bodies. When visitors came, the heavy curtain at the front of the stage was raised just sufficiently for them to watch the footwork, the steps that these feet performed… Later still, they made a small 'puppet theatre' out of sheets of card and in it redanced their old repertoire with their nimble fingers. Keep on telling stories. Storytelling = staying alive.



(translation: Gregory Ball)