Geometry and grace

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Six Brandenburg Concertos

By Oriane Jeancourt Galignani 02 April 2019

© Laurent Philippe / OnP

Les six Concertos brandebourgeois par la Compagnie Rosas, Palais Garnier, 2019

Geometry and grace

Whilst presenting her Brandenburg Concertos with her company Rosas, a superb choreographic interpretation of Bach, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker talked to Oriane Jeancourt Galignani, our partner from Transfuge.

A stark, empty, impeccably clean dressing room. She doesn’t try to sit down. We are just thirty minutes away from the dress rehearsal on the stage of the Palais Garnier. She doesn’t want to talk to us. She doesn’t like and has never liked lending herself to the interview game. Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker is a petite woman in white sneakers and a black suit, which could be made from the same semi-opaque, hybrid silk and crêpe fabric, which adorns the bodies of the sixteen dancers on stage in the Six Brandenburg Concertos. The men, their torsos reshaped by the dark fabric, dance in fluid pants—sometimes in Bermuda shorts, and even a dress for one of them at the end of the performance. The four women are also wearing trousers—among them the down-to-earth and magisterial Cynthia Loemij, the company’s longstanding and leading figure who, in this production, sets the stage alight. Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker greets us with the smooth, weary and impenetrable face of someone with something else on her mind. No doubt, the choreographer is tired of having to answer the same question that she has been asked in New York, Brussels, or here in Paris: why turn to Bach, again? But the question is erroneous: Keersmaeker is not turning to Bach again, she never turned away from him. It is a reality repeated each time, from her earliest choreographed steps; from Violin Phase—that 1980 revelation in New York featuring the mechanical silhouettes of three dancers twisting and turning their bodies to become the living tempo of Steve Reich’s score—Bach has been there…
Of course, it was minimalist music which allowed her to break out and forge the Keersmaeker style, and lead to her stunning entrance into the world of dance. But, in that New York of the early 1980s first discovered by the young Belgian in awe of a city where dance was omnipresent, it had to be Bach, and she laid claim to him numerous times: The Brandenburg Concertos were a pillar of her research, as was Reich. The art of the ritornello? The profoundly circular nature of the two forms of music? The possibility, so clearly present in her productions, for the body to use gesture and tempo to become an element of the score? No doubt, the truth is more complex than that. And also more existential. Undoubtedly, it is no coincidence that one of her last productions set to Bach’s Suites borrowed its title from the Lutheran hymn, Mitten wir im Leben sind. With Bach, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker finds a spirituality of order and of chaos that is fundamentally necessary for her.

Les six Concertos brandebourgeois par la Compagnie Rosas, Palais Garnier, 2019
Les six Concertos brandebourgeois par la Compagnie Rosas, Palais Garnier, 2019 © Laurent Philippe / OnP

The complex order of chaos

There is a glorious puritanism to Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, and her choreography. That is to say, puritanism in the sense of the baroque era, namely, a quest, as with Bach, for a pure incarnation. I pointed out to her, when it comes to Bach, that she often talks of “ordered chaos”, which may seem puzzling given that the chaotic dimension of Bach is not exactly apparent: “but perhaps chaos is a complex order” she replies.
And in fact, her production falls within the realms of that: a Methodism that constantly questions its own foundations. The Six concertos are as much about reinventing the geometry of the stage as they are living paintings which she has choreographed in solos or ensembles of unequalled virtuosity. She explains to us her approach with precision: “It took me almost thirty-five years to decide to choreograph the Brandenburg Concertos. However, in the interim, I worked with Bach five times: there was Toccata, Partita 2 with Amandine Beyer and Boris Charmatz. There were the Six Suites for Cello and a double collaboration with Alain Franco that reflected on the relationship between the music of Bach and great composers of the 20th century like Schoenberg and Webern. But this was the first time I was choreographing a piece of music by Bach that had been composed for a large ensemble. At that moment, I had the desire to seek out a choreographic language that would translate the beauty, musicality, and complexity of the music which Bach had composed: a call to life, a call to dance, a call for movement. A highly exhilarating, uplifting piece of music, extremely rich in its diversity and its harmony.”
At the beginning, we rediscover that famous art of walking which is the signature of the choreography and which she defines in terms of “my walking is my dancing”. Men and women advance soldier-like towards the edge of the stage, yet this military step is reigned in, as if almost deconstructed. There is a hint of a ritornello which will hide from itself. And the beginning of a narrative. I don’t know whether it is because the dancers are numerous and from different generations, but rarely has one of Keersmaeker’s productions seemed to infuse us with a sense of narrative. It is akin to a succession of doors opening onto other landscapes or places of emotive power. Keersmaeker sees only an echo of the essential nature of the Concertos: “Without being systematic, Bach’s music carries an emotional human memory. It’s full of jubilation, joy, sadness, compassion, even humour... There are a range of emotions that are always clearly distinct and perceptible in Bach’s music. As such, it conveys a lot of anarchy. And as human beings, we recognise ourselves in this music.” She also uses the word dramaturgy, but when we point this out to her she corrects herself immediately, illustrating the unceasing contemplation she affords her own work: “We must understand the word dramaturgy, not in the sense of narrative structure, but rather, as a spatial strategy itself based on an underlying geometry, which in turn is based on circles, ellipses, pentagrams, spirals: an alternation between straight and curved lines and circles.”

Les six Concertos brandebourgeois par la Compagnie Rosas, Palais Garnier, 2019
Les six Concertos brandebourgeois par la Compagnie Rosas, Palais Garnier, 2019 © Laurent Philippe / OnP


To listen to the precision with which the choreographer conceives her work, I cannot help but question her on each stage of the ballet. How does one approach a work as rich and diverse as Concertos? “Once the decision was made to do all six, and do them in one piece, it was obvious that I had to develop a choreographic, musical, and spatial strategy which would plot a line between the six concertos that would reflect their diversity and their unity”.

In terms of casting, she has chosen to present different generations of dancers to juxtapose bodies but also ways of dancing. As a result, we find Cynthia Loemij and Samantha van Wissen, both of whom appeared in the legendary Rosas danst Rosas of 1997, but also some young faces like the 25-year-old dancer Robin Haghi who trained at P.A.R.T.S, the School in Brussels founded by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. So how does she work with dancers of such disparate experience? And how does she inspire such company coordination in them? She talks about that in a relaxed way for the first time in our interview: “We call on the skills and methods that we have developed over the years and at the same time we also search for new ways. Each piece of music is different. There are always two key partners: the music and the dancers. Obviously, the task is to make sure that the dancers give the best of themselves, to embrace the challenge of creating a choreography based on such complex music and to find a solution to that. As we proceed, there’s a physical approach and an intellectual approach: the interpretation of the score, the question of the organisation of time and space. And on the other hand, you effectively follow your own intuition and instinct. We explore. It’s an important job that advances at a very slow pace, step by step, bar by bar. First you need to prepare the groundwork, create the vocabulary, draw the main spatial lines, have a “casting” to decide who is doing what. To develop a vocabulary based on certain architectural principles.
Working from geometric designs on the floor, the company also builds on the impressions formed during rehearsals which can last for as long as five or six months. This time…”, the choreographer tells us, “it was The Abécédaire de Deleuze which provided them with a certain notion of underlying narration”.

Scientific awareness of mortality

It has often been said that at the end of the 20th century Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker created a powerful connection between music and dance that previous choreographers had sought to unravel. Indeed, in this production we rediscover the principle of one musician / one instrument, that was already used, particularly in her piece Vortex Temporum based on the music of Grisey which was presented at the Festival d’Automne.
Here, this principle reaches its peak during the superb solo which accompanies the famous flight of the keyboard during the fifth concerto. That musical moment which some would say made Bach one of the most modern composers of the classical era, seeking to challenge the rules he himself had decreed when he composed the Concertos. Keersmaeker’s choreography is in tune with this subversion of the harpsichord.

But there is also something else that the ballet brings out: Bach’s humour. Elation was already present in the trio which Keersmaeker choreographed to Bach’s French Suite in 2010. However, here there is a genuine surrealist humour embodied by a dog which meanders through the choreography, like in a game of skittles. The shadow play with which we have become familiar since Fase here underplays the choreography in progress and also provides a comical counterpoint in the middle of the ballet.
Because they are so at one with the music, the dancers of the Concertos are suffused with infinite resonance. Before leaving us, Keersmaeker emphasises the music’s human scope: “There are several pieces of music by Bach that are testimony to this existential consciousness and its capacity to embody our mortality. The almost scientific awareness that we belong to something which is beyond us. With a deep understanding that we are human and made of flesh.” Between geometry and grace.

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