In 2015, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker gave the Paris Opera Ballet one of her early pieces, one she had danced herself in 1986. For the revival of Quartet no. 4, four of the artists who took part when it entered the repertoire and who have contributed to the conception of the production’s publicity poster this season, have agreed to talk about their relationship with this ballet. Whilst they all emphasise its complexity, they also underline their pleasure in taking up this seminal work, both energetic and gay, once more. A group piece in which each performer has her place. Encounters.
Sae Eun Park
Quartet no. 4’s entry into the repertoire represents one of the high spots in my professional and personal career. My memory of it is of something both brilliant and also particularly difficult. I had a serious accident during rehearsals: I was kicked in the forehead by someone’s heel. The cut was deep and wide. I was taken to hospital in an ambulance to have it stitched. I felt both sad and worried: the face is so important for a dancer.
I felt incapable of coming back to rehearsals. It took a lot of courage and will power but eventually I got back to work in the studio. With a lot of apprehension though… In the end I was really rather proud of myself! I danced the ballet and with great pleasure too. After all that intense work, we really enjoyed ourselves.
The piece is particularly difficult to learn. Our classical training means that, whenever we work on contemporary repertoire, we have to “unlearn” in order to learn a new, very different language. I didn’t know if I would manage it, it was a real challenge for me. I think of myself as a classical dancer and, in this piece, Anne Teresa asked us to liberate ourselves, to listen to our own rhythm, to our bodies. I learnt a lot about myself, it liberated me and, ever since that experience, I don’t dance in the same way.
This “Quartet” is a group piece that requires us to dance together, with the same timing, the same style. Anne Teresa gave us a lot of encouragement and got us to listen to the music. The choreographic writing is very detailed, geometric, almost mathematical and requires great concentration. It’s certainly the most complex piece I’ve had to dance so far!
When Quartet no. 4 entered the repertoire, I had just come back from maternity leave. Rehearsal were difficult. The choreography spins a lot, which made me feel nauseous and dizzy, so much so that I wondered whether I had a problem with my inner ear… It’s not an easy piece to learn. The music is complex and requires extensive listening to appropriate it. The difficulty with the choreography stems from the fact that, although the phrases resemble each other, there is nonetheless always something that changes. We were very concentrated for this work, so as to avoid lapses of memory. Anne Teresa pushed us to go beyond this state in order to construct our own story. She wanted our complicity to be perceptible, even from a distance. This “Quartet” is an intimate piece and, in the vastness of the Palais Garnier, she wanted the audience to see that we were having fun, and to understand the rhythm and the playful aspects.
It's also an extremely physical ballet and we often get out of breath. We walk, we jump, we are constantly pulling ourselves up… Fortunately, the music, which is punchy, carries us along. In spite of the fatigue, there is still the pleasure of surpassing oneself. Often, in Anne Teresa’s pieces, the studio work is laborious but, once on stage, one has enormous pleasure! The first time I worked with her, on Rain, I found the rehearsals interminable. Having never danced her repertoire, I didn’t know what to expect. The surprise, the revelation is that, once on stage, liberated from the learning phase, one experiences the joy of expressing oneself naturally, with one’s own personality.
It’s just four girls playing with the score in all its complexity. We play like kids, whilst being women with a boyish side. It’s full of contradictions… The ankle boots and the thick hiking socks create a casual chic effect, a sort of femininity that is discernible without being ostentatious. Wearing our hair loose is rather rare for us classical dancers. But the movement of the hair accompanies that of the neck and the back and helps one to let go, to move with greater freedom. There’s something childlike, mischievous and very energetic about it. Finally, it picks up on certain questions raised in Play by Alexander Ekman: why, once one is adult, does one no longer play like a child, why does one no longer have that energy?
I have a very particular memory of the entry to the repertoire of Quartet no. 4. It wasn’t an “ordinary” production. Bartok’s music is quite complicated, dissonant, almost “twisted” in structure. One can’t count in the usual way and you really have to know the score and the choreography by heart. It’s a piece that Anne Teresa created before Rain and Drumming and the vocabulary isn’t altogether the same. In those two pieces, we dance barefoot, there are more surges and jumps. In “Quartet”, everything is brought back down to ground level, the movements are simpler but the sequences are more complex.
The costumes are also very unusual: those boots with big heavy heels are a big change from pointes… As a result, your relationship with the floor is not the same, nor the way you hold yourself on stage. The boots make a noise and we exploit this by using our own personal rhythms and accompanying the music.
This spirit of the piece mirrors that of the music, there is dissonance: we are just as feminine and sensual as we are strong and powerful. But that’s not necessarily contradictory! There’s also humour. Sometimes the music is light-hearted and, above all, we have fun. The beginning and the end of the ballet are like a declaration of war, but with enthusiasm. Anne Teresa told us to be like Amazons.
It’s a balanced piece, each has her own territory. At the same time, everything relies on listening and group cohesion. The noise of the shoes and the sound of our breathing helps. When you breathe together, you know you’re dancing together. Little by little, the feeling of being in unison, in the same energy, becomes exhilarating.
It’s four individuals dancing together with great energy. We are all in black, with ankle boots, everything is dark. You might think it would be austere but, on the contrary, femininity expresses itself with enthusiasm, determination and energy without taking itself too seriously.
I was really pleased that a piece like this one had entered the repertoire. Its format is very unusual: a quartet of musicians on stage with four dancers in ankle boots, skirts and black jumpers! The piece relies on a shared energy, a momentum and it’s not easy to tune in to each other and still maintain our own characters. There are moments of melancholy, when it’s calmer, but taken as a whole, it’s rather a gay piece. The last movement is strong both physically and musically: it’s pugnacious, like a sort of joyous provocation.
It’s only when one gets on stage that the power of this ballet is revealed. After months of work, I realised that once the choreography and the music had been mastered, there was immense freedom. We have to be rapid, precise and above all not hesitate. But over and above these constraints, we are just asked to be ourselves and be proud of what we are. It’s utterly jubilatory. We realised how much freedom of expression we could have, in what we wanted to say through our bodies. Although it’s important not to lapse into mincing caricature, we do exploit our femininity. Anne Teresa wanted us to address the audience and tell them: “Look how free we are”, that’s a strong position to adopt. This is a feminist piece, but in the right sense of the term: the issue is not equality with men but being a woman in a skirt who can show her knickers if she feels like it. She’s neither better nor worse than a man, just different.
Each of us in turn is in charge of a movement. Mine begins with the musicians refusing to play! I stamp my feet and they still refuse. A second time… I get irritated, I stamp my feet and this time it’s an order. A game is established with the musicians on the stage. Sometimes we look at each other, because it’s from them that we get our cue: we have our backs towards the audience and it’s as if the musicians were our conductor.
Your reading: Little Black Number and Leather Boots