Features » Performing Arts


Fear of the standstill

Katrin Bettina Müller on Tanz im August and the dark side of the pas de deux

Something changes in remaining true to itself. Something stays identical while changing. This is the paradox that emerges when choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker (born in 1960) brings together choreographies she developed 25 years ago to the music of Steve Reich with more recent ones (from 1997, 2007). Because in the ascetic material conception of the American composer, in his confinement to a movement of the musician, a short piano melody or a chord on the electronic organ, there is always an ethical concept. This is a warning against stimulus overload and a challenge to push through, using concentration and reduction, to things one might like to pinpoint as essential, things which bear the hallmark of abstraction and the post-war modernist avantgarde.

Rosas / Anne Teresa des Keersmaeker/Brussels: Steve Reich evening © Herman Sorgeloos

But because the culture in which Reich set his postulate has accelerated further and the frequency of impulses impacting on perception has increased, the relationship to the aesthetic message has changed. What once seemed a radical counter movement appears as sheer necessity today. Chill out, shift down, reduce – the need for a break from and renunciation of the relentless forward thrust of technological possibilities has made itself felt in different ways across the milieus.

The new "Steve Reich Evening" performed by de Keersmaeker's company Rosas, which opened the Festival Tanz im August in Berlin, is 105 minutes long. But before music becomes dance, it becomes sculpture and is staged at the Hebbel Theatre by musicians of the Ictus Ensemble. At first they set two microphones swinging above two loudspeakers to produce wailing siren-like, frightening sounds with the distortions of feedback. You start to fear the standstill and to seek out a rhythm once the swinging's over, and the entire piece holds its breath.

The swinging motion is taken up again by the two dancers Cynthia Loemij and Tale Dolven in the "Piano Phase" choreography created in 1982, and each time their arms swing, the dancers do a half-twist. Lines, curves and spirals coil and uncoil; all movements are rigorous and relaxed at the same time; endlessly repetitious and yet exciting. In bringing these seemingly contrary qualities together so effortlessly, de Keersmaeker opens up new avenues.

The freedom won by formal strength has remained the choreographer's best asset ever since. The more dancers are on the stage, the more complex the pattern becomes – of interweaving spirals, of movement sequences that are read backwards and forwards, of circles, triangles and stars folded into each other. As the music builds up, and the musicians and their instruments orient themselves ever more to the reflections and symmetries, the images of movement take on the qualities of a swarm. The group runs in and out of itself, succumbs to suction, defines its shape anew. And since every point in this net can make the decisions, it's easy to see these dancing figures, albeit optimistically, as social models.

LaLaLa Human Steps / Montreal
Amjad © Edouard Lock

Since its founding in 1988, the Brussels choreographer to Berlin has been a frequent guest at the Festival Tanz im August. So too the Canadian company LaLaLa Human Steps, which one might see as the polar oppostite to de Keersmaekers in terms of the economy of attention. Edouard Lock, whose famously virtuoso group was founded in 1980, presented a piece that seemed to consist of nothing but highlights. It strung together one pas de deux - a core element of dramatic collision - after the next and was less a deconstruction of ballet than an eclectic attempt to develop his emotions further.

The lyrical music that Gavin Byars developed on the Tchaikovsky motifs; the light that creates shifting perspectives through sharp cuts; the explosive tension that characterises all the female bodies on stage; the sharp stabs of the ballet points: all of these elements create tension, intensity, emotion. But like an ineluctable embrace, this evening taps into the dark side of ballet's romantic legacy to also sow seeds of anxiety.

There are too many pair stories, even if some of them are beautifully ambiguous, like the pas de deux of two men whose ribs collide and bouce off each other before finding complementary forms. But most of the time it's the classic men holding, lifting and helping divas to write their infinitely fine and nervous subtexts between the lines of classical gestures. As if a highly neurotic text had taken the place of the romantic messages in Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, and was running obsessively back and forth among everything that Romanticism created from repression and taboo.

Claudia de Serpa Soares / Grayson Millwood, Berlin: Edgar © Maurice Korbel

The festival's third night presented a piece that broke down the couple motif of the classic pas de deux in a completely different manner. Claudia de Serpa Soares and Grayson Millwood, two former dancers of Sasha Waltz & Guest, transformed the dialogue of bodies into a kind of circus act in their choreography entitled "Edgar". Instead of lifting the ballerina into a floating, extended, fairy-tale leap, Grayson Millwood stems little Claudia de Serpa Soares as if pumping iron. It is a stoically enacted clownish number in which the two dancers demonstrate all the physical work that dance normally hides.


The article originally appeared in the taz on August 21, 2007.

Katrin Bettina Müller is the performing arts critic for die tageszeitung.

Translation: Claudia Kotte - let's talk european