On stage are five women, three men and two musicians. The men and women move alongside each other in a fragile equilibrium, cautiously sounding out each other's boundaries, their movements closely grafted on the unruly romanticism of Ysaÿe's violin sonatas and Ligeti's piano studies. They chase one another without ever possessing each other, claim each other's space without ever touching. The dance is energetic and smooth, restrained and self-absorbed. And underneath courses the "fire of absence and distance".
Achterland was premiered in 1990 at La Monnaie. Today, twenty-eight years on, this piece is still a benchmark in Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's highly individual body of work. Achterland is a seminal work, as it contains the fruit of what preceded as well as the seeds of what was to follow. In this performance De Keersmaeker pulls away from her personal past, thus creating a new space in which numerous thematic and choreographic traces of former Rosas pieces reach a provisional and delicate synthesis. In the strict choreography of Achterland the choreographic material from Stella, a more theatrical performance, is arranged in a more rigorously constructed framework and confronted with new material, introduced by the three male dancers. This restatement of the Stella material imparts an unanticipated higher value to it, an implicit sensuality and tension, even more intensified by the dancers' seeming self-centredness and the geometrical lighting concept.
In the organic coherence of the musical and choreographic material Achterland takes another step on the course introduced in Mikrokosmos. The empathic presence of the musicians on stage adds a dramatic aspect to the significant status of the music in Rosas's works. The inevitable interaction between the musicians and dancers follows naturally from the symmetry in the musical and choreographic composition. Ysaÿe as well as Ligeti explore the performer's limits; their compositions, performed live on stage, require a virtuoso mastery of the instrument, a degree of precision mirrored in the strictly composed dance sequences. The choreography brings a physical component to the complexity of the score through the build-up, layer by layer, of choreographic material.
Ligeti's meticulous compositions compel the dancers to smallness, to the restriction of their movement repertory. Proceeding from the contact with the musical elements, the body goes on a quest, shifting from big body movements to smaller moves. The body is fragmented in order to allow it to respond to the rhythmical and compositional complexity of the score. Ligeti's compositions, both fancifully constructed and smooth, fit surprisingly well the choreographic techniques of earlier Rosas works, and the use of phase shifts link the composer to the American minimalist Reich, who earlier inspired De Keersmaeker's Fase and who cropped up again more recently in Just Before and Drumming. But just like in Ysaÿe's case, Ligeti's fascination with the compositional and technical virtuosity can't hide a fundamentally romantic, if often unwillingly passionate harmony. Thanks to the inflexibility of the composition this sensitivity never turns into sentimentality.
The music is an essential component of Achterland. As the bedrock of the choreography, as the generator of movement, it is the stage on which the dancers move and linger, display and hide themselves, in permanent conflict or harmony with the aloof exaltation of the virtuoso performances. In analogy with the contrapuntal structure of the score De Keersmaeker develops a complex choreography in which an entirely new movement framework appears, through shifts and fragmentation, inversion and imitation. In Rosas' hinterland (this is the meaning of 'achterland') emotions are restrained, the dancers are given to introspection. But the technical virtuosity also leaves enough space for an unsentimental demonstration of the dancers' physical singularity. Those anti-virtuoso moments glow like precious gems in the course of the performance. The basic emotion conjured up by the sensual curve of a leg, the single image that stays in one's mind, the wriggling feet, a shirt-clad woman teetering on high heels - all those images become more forceful through the aloofness of the evoked intimacy. In the framework of the transparent and geometrical staging, the performers' characteristic physical tonality is set in a multilayered structure, in which technical excellence and visceral emotion complement and sustain each other.
In this piece, great attention is paid once again to the feminine in all its guises, such as the girls in ladies' clothes, wildly leaping about, or the uncertain sensuality of high-heeled shoes. But the female dancers' teasing narcissistic exhibitionism is curbed by the presence of the three male dancers. Even if they rather seem to dance against the men than for them, their initial uninvolved willfulness evolves into a subtle balance as the performance proceeds. Boundaries become fluid, signs interchangeable. The monomaniacal femininity of several earlier Rosas pieces gives way to an unambiguous no man's land. Young girls wear ladies' clothes, a woman dances wearing a man's shirt, a man uses the female dance idiom. The acknowledgement of each other's presence is formally discernible rather than physically. The movement pattern of the one group sparsely filters through in the others' phrases, without ever leading to true contact. Their mutual involvement is shown more explicitly in the contrapuntal interrelation of their dance vocabulary, rather than in the abortive advances near the end of the performance.
The hinterland is a passionate landscape, where nothing is what it is or what it seems. This is an unclassifiable piece, lending itself to a new reading each time one sees it. Each performance rereads the score and produces a new composition. When such a piece is revived it gains even greater depth, as it is only in retrospect that its importance in Rosas's body of work becomes apparent. In Achterland De Keersmaeker's choreographic writing acquires a complexity conferring a new intensity to the earlier material; as a key work it already contains elements appearing later in pieces such as Drumming.
But above all this is a performance radiating an exceptional balance, in the perfect symbiosis between music and dance, the seamless interaction between structure and emotion, the display and hiding of desire and distance, the physical confrontation between the musicians and dancers, the simplicity of the stage setting. this makes for a performance that deserves to be seen repeatedly. And enjoyed as many times, too.
Elke Van Campenhout, 1998