Between gravity and levitation

Published on 26.08.2017, 11:45

An interview with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Jean-Guihen Queyras by Jan Vandenhouwe

Six scores of Bach's cello suites lie scattered on a large, wooden desk. Spread between them, visitors may find sketches of colourful geometric patterns and treatises on Leibniz, Newton, physics, astronomy, Bach and alchemy. In the centre of the room, five dancers and a cellist – the instrument pinched between the musician's legs – are seated around the very same table. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Jean-Guihen Queyras and a troupe of dancers are preparing for a new performance at the Rosas studios in Vorst. While the world-renowned cellist is playing the allemande from the first suite, he talks the dancers through the harmonic and rhetoric structure of Bach’s piece. Everybody eagerly takes down notes on their personalised scores .

“I'm extremely grateful and honoured that Jean-Guihen, despite his busy tour agenda, is taking the time to work with us here”, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker confesses when seated her office some time later. “I’ve been learning”, Queyras replies.

How did the idea to create a joint dance performance first arise?

Jean-Guihen Queyras: I must confess that I am a layperson when it comes to matters of dance. Often enough, some friends had the habit of inviting me to dance performances, but as such the pieces didn't usually appeal to me. Admittedly, I was very demanding, probably because I have no dance culture. Above all, I was simply unable to detect any satisfying links between music and choreography. This up to a couple of years ago, when composer and organist Bernard Foccroulle recommended I have a look at the work of Anne Teresa. I had seen some of her work in the past, like Achterland, set to music by Ligeti...

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker: … and by Ysaÿe. An unusual combination.

JGQ: But I would never have dreamed of working with somebody like Anne Teresa. It had always struck me that she had the habit of working with the method of a composer. She goes to the roots, to the crux of a composition, from which she allows her choreography to grow.

ATDK: It was indeed Bernard Foccroulle who brought us together and recommended I attend one of Jean-Guihen's concerts at Bozar.

JGQ: Subsequently, I  paid a visit to Work/Travail/Arbeid when it featured in WIELS.

ATDK: That's where we first effectively discussed how we could possibly coperate on a piece.

JGQ: And that's when I immediately sensed your desire to do something with Bach.

ATDK: This is not the first time I've worked with Bach. There was also Bach in Toccata, Zeitung and Partita 2. Old and new music have always played a key role in my work. Of course, one could here mention Monteverdi and Mozart as well, especially the latter’s vocal pieces. 'Così fan tutte' in the Paris Opera was a crucial experience for me. Overall, however, Bach has always occupied an even more unique spot within classical music for me. It is always with some modesty and trepidation that I approach his music. There is simply no other composer that succeeds in conveying that sense of 'embodied abstraction' as much as he does. He renders the divine human and the human divine. He stands at a unique moment in the history of music, in the history of mankind, even.

What is it that makes his music so appealing to dancers?

ATDK: Bach's music is rigidly structured, yet remains rooted in movement and dance. It was Jean-Guihen who made me aware of how important the concept of tonal harmony was to Bach – the relation between different keys, between major and minor. Bach used it to create unity in large compositions. I sensed that didn't do enough with that in my previous Bach performances.

JGQ: You get much inspiration from the musicians you work with. Honestly, I have the feeling that I have infected you with my obsession for Bach's harmonic flow. When playing the suites, I tend to just utterly centre my attention on that very flow. When I pointed out to you and the dancers during the rehearsals that there exists an 'inaudible' bassline lingering under the melody of the monophonic cello suites, you immediately urged me to write it out.

ATDK: In the chaconne of the second violin partita, I once worked with Amandine Beyer on the underlying bassline. The basic movement in the choreography was then based on the principal 'my walking is my dancing' [ATDK stands up and walks across the room]. Walking is the simplest movement that transports me through space, and divides my time. Whereas the basic movement here was two-dimensional, it has now become three-dimensional. Today we find ourselves working on the horizontal and the vertical axes.

How does that work?

ATDK: The verticality of the spine is typical for the human posture. The posture of an animal is horizontal, usually stood as it is on four legs. With human beings, the horizontal axis is the social axis on which you either approach or avoid someone. The vertical axis is the spiritual axis, the relationship between the higher and the lower spheres. In a sense, this axis provides the connection between heaven and earth. Rehearsing the cello suites has proved a veritable challenge. How can one translate the harmonic structure of the music into a posture of the human body? In Così fan tutte we systematically linked key modulations or transitions from minor to major, to back- or forward, up- or downward, centrifugal or centripetal movements. There is much to learn from bodily language: a vertical spinal column conjures an open, positive sentiment whereas a forward-bent spinal column generates a closed, melancholic mood. Do you know when we as human beings assume a horizontal position with our spinal column, Jean-Guihen?

JGQ: When we go to sleep? Or something else? [laughs]

ATDK: Or die. It is usually associated with the act of surrender, the relationship between the passive and the active, between the yin and yang of Eastern philosophy, as it were. For the Lutheran protestant Bach, the relationship with death was a principal element not only in his cantatas but also in his other music. ‘Mitten wir im Leben sind / Mit dem Tod umfangen’, is an excerpt from a Medieval hymn in Latin which was translated by Luther and which also appears on Pina Bausch’s gravestone.  

On the table, one finds books on Newton and Leibniz …

ATDK: Newton is known as the scholar who first theorised the gravitational laws. Leibniz was interested in Chinese natural philosophy as it is described in the complementary thinking of the 'I Ching'. In that sense, he may have rather been interested in the reverse movement on the vertical axis: away from the earth, away from gravity: the concept of 'levitation'. Figures like Newton and Leibniz set the intellectual framework of the era in which Bach worked. I may find inspiration in all these facets during the rehearsals, but that is more my internal process of which I don't want to reveal much.

JGQ: You’ve made my curious…

ATDK: For me, it is simply a question of the general laws of nature. Choreography is the process of organising a movement in time and space in accordance with a certain degree of intensity. I study the laws of nature as possible patterns, structures and procedures that may serve as an inspiration to the dance. These laws are on the one hand extremely concrete, yet on the other hand they also reflect a higher order. I am equally fascinated by old forms of wisdom in which science, philosophy and art were not yet separated from each other. At its foundation was wonder, from which people tried to understand who we are, where we come from, where we are going, what remains,...

Isn't it a huge challenge to make a two-hour performance with only music for solo cello?

ATDK: As a largely monophonic instrument, the cello entails a certain economy of means. It is interesting to see how Bach maximises the capabilities of the instrument, pushes it as far as it can go.

JGQ: He ingeniously turns a handicap into an advantage. With Bach, the physical reality of the instrument and its player is as important as the intellectual construction of the composition. There is a mixture of spirit – the strength of the concept – and matter itself. Bach was very much aware of the effect of the addition of a triad or of a four-note chord to his musical material and, as a consequence, to the temporal progression of the piece as such. The reason for this is that such chords cannot be played on a cello simultaneously, as on a piano, but only consecutively.

The titles of the parts of the suites refer to different types of baroque dances. Did these take up a role in the making of the choreography itself?

ATDK: I once studied the fundamental characteristics of the baroque dances, for instance for Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in Toccata. But ultimately, these only form a very thin thread in the choreographic structure I designed for the cello suites: in the courantes we work with the idea of running, in the allemandes with a certain fluidity or rubato, in the sarabandes with the solemn aspect and in the gigues with a more energetic character.

JGQ: As it happens, it is impossible to apply the strict rules of the baroque dance to the cello suites. Bach used the basic principles of the dances to develop his musical vocabulary, but the parts of the suites are not real dances. I challenge anybody to dance a baroque allemande to the allemande of the sixth suite. Bach here transcends the very principle of dance.

Has the collaboration with the dancers influenced your own work as a cellist?

JGQ: Last week I was interpreting the cello suites in concert, without dance. While I was playing, I pondered on the question what effect a certain harmonic change, a break or a sudden build-up of tension would have on the dance. It is enormously important that we can work on these questions collectively here in one studio.

ATDK: The influence is always mutual. Additionally, during rehearsal every dancer brings with them their own personal experiences to the creative process. I have been working with four dancers with, whom I have created a few of the essential projects of my career in the past few years, like Vortex Temporum and Così fan tutte. This time, each dancer will take up a key role in one of the suites. I don't want to compare the collaboration with them to a closed circle but rather to a spiral. It is like returning to a beginning, yet at the same time being en route to something new.