When Silence Swallows the Dancer


Wiebke Hüster


Few contemporary choreographers are as successful as Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker in reinventing dance again and again, locating new anchor points for its social and artistic moorings, and yet remaining true to herself in such an exciting manner. Again, with her new piece, “The Song,” which premiered at the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris she proved this brilliantly. Everything is different, the stage, the lighting, the music, the structure and order of the dance; the choreographic sources are completely different, and yet it is the same extraordinarily bright artistic mind which is at work here.

She takes it in a stride that the work will provoke, she almost seeks the moment in which the audience cannot but tumble from admiration into irritation. Since her solo “Once,” during which – for the same reasons – her voice suddenly chimed in with Joan Baez and in a terribly eerie manner intoned “We shall overcome,” completely confusing her audience (the scene was an anti-war scene, some spectators were crying), since then she had not quite pushed the limits as she does now, with “The Song.” No wonder that the Paris audience reacted the way they did: for almost an hour and half, of the two hours, there was a constant stream of audience members leaving the house.

Yet it was not easy to understand why - since inspite of all the provocation one would have assumed that an urbane public would be able to recognize the problematic aspects of the piece and see what extraordinary dancers were performing there in front of them, and what intelligent, complex language they unfolded. De Keersmaeker’s company, Rosas, had always included excpetional talents, but here she creates a dance with a highly unusual cast of nine men and one woman. It is probably no exaggeration to claim that the choregrapher has integrated some of the best European male contemporary dancers into her ensemble. To the extent that more women entered into politics, the dance world became enriched with more interesting men, De Keersmaeker suggests cunningly. However, one can surely understand her interest in the vigorous male movement energy. After all these years during which she redefined the feminine in dance, she now releases the strenghts of the masculine – of course in the shape of young male bodies, which lends the work a wonderful, ironic aspect.

But this alone did not proboke the Parisian audience. Rather, it was thye fact that De Keersmaeker had turned away almost entirely from the primary source of energy for her dances: the music. If her dance had a feminine dimension in the past, even more so it had a musical foundation. Whether using compositions by Bach, Mozart, Schönberg, Bartók, Webern, Steve Reich or jazz music by Aka Moon – the choreographer always proved to have a lucid visual sensibility for music. Now we see nine men and one woman in silence. A silence which is only very occasionally interrupted, very softly, by the sound artist (“bruitist”) Céline Bernard who insinuates herself almost rhythmically into the steps of the dancers with her rustling silver foils, scratching noises, with her whirling ropes or soft puffing and blowing sounds.

We are one and a half hours into the performance when the loudspeakers in the theatre are turned on – but now to the fullest volume, and on the faintly lit stage suddenly a wild “after show” atmosphere explodes. The Beatles screem “Helter Skelter,” and the dancers walk casually around the stage, like unsaddled horses after a race when they are taken down to the stables and walked around to cool off. The entire performance is full of such unforgettable moments, even if they don’t jump into your face quite like this one. The scenography and the lighting, created in collaboration with the visual artists Anne Veronica Janssens and Michael François, all by themselves create some of most exciting minutes – before the piece descends into a 30 minute long nocturne.

Right above the gray, quadrangular dance carpet, there is a huge canvas of aluminum foil suspended from two rails. Depending on how the lights hit the silver foil, the floor is covered with jagged lines. When the ligthing is softer, a kind of play of clouds seems to volve on the floor. These wonderful atmospheric transformations of the space – a spectacle in itself – reach their climax in some very dramatic moments. Released from one of the cross bars, the silver canopy slowly falls down, with a soft crackling, until it hangs loose like a curtain, glittering with the light’s reflection. Then the whole foil descends down to th floor where it collapses and folds with rustling noise -- a huge chinese paper dragon spitting fire and then burning up in a heap, with small popping explosions like at the end of fireworks.

What a strong essence is revealed in this work: the dance moves past us in fleeting constellations, the stage set crumbles, and again and again darkness swallows up the stage and removes the dancers from sight in midst of a jump, the music exists only as the faintest sound, almost as if it were a not quite recognizable echo of reality or a sentimental, private versio of karaoke.
Obviously, De Keersmaeker seems to suggest that stillness and holding still, remaining still, could be a possible answer to the excessively fast consumption of all natural resources, as long as reflection is linked to such stillness, careful looking and listening, precise perception. Whoever is willing to do so, during “The Song,” is richly rewarded, as it happens when one is willing to concentrate and enter into a complex, sometimes contradictory but sturdy artwork. But we are as we are, at least quite a few of us: they rush, nervously jump up from their chairs, noisily push themselves through the aisles towards the exit, irrespective of the disturbance they cause, just to flee quickly from themselves and from such a precise picture of our world. What if they were to look at it carefully, and slowly, until the picture can be comprehended?


translated by Johannes Birringer

(© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. All rights reserved. Provided by Frankfurter Allgemeine Archiv. First published July 3, 2009)



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