“For dancers, improvising should be the norm rather than the exception.”
In addition to jazz music, the practice of improvisation has always occupied a distinct space within the choreographic oeuvre of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Rosas. Salva Sanchis – who studied at PARTS from 1995 to 1998 – was himself a privileged witness to that very evolution: he performed as a dancer in the 2003 Rosas creation set to Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, and in 2005 as dancer and co-choreographer in Desh, a piece based on Indian music and John Coltrane’s India. More than ten years after the presentation of the piece in a diptych with Raga for the Rainy Season, De Keersmaeker and Sanchis have undertaken a reworking of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, turning it into an evening performance now danced by a wholly new cast of dancers.
Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker: Taking on A Love Supreme fits with the idea of revisiting, and rewriting, Rosas’s repertoire for a new generation of dancers. We did the same thing with Rain (the piece from 2001 that we picked up again in 2016 with an entirely new cast). In 2005, Salva and I conjointly choreographed A Love Supreme and since then he has frequently used material from the piece in his classes as a teacher at PARTS. What is interesting about the piece, in addition to its intrinsic connection with this milestone of 20th-century music, is the way it combines improvised and written choreography.
Salva Sanchis: When we were working on Bitches Brew, we used to listen to Miles Davis a lot. We therefore inevitably developed a fascination with the role that Coltrane played as a musician in the “Miles Davis Quintet”. Davis and Coltrane admired each other very much, yet they were at the same time very different. Miles is about simplicity, Coltrane about expressive excess and energy. On the whole, A Love Supreme is more suitable for a dance performance than a simple collection of songs. The music possesses a structure with a beginning and an end, thus offering a kind of dramaturgical accessibility.
Were you already a ‘jazzman’ when you got involved with Rosas's jazz-based projects?
Sanchis: I was a fervent jazz-adept before we started on the piece, definitely. I have always been interested in different kinds of music, but in the period before and during Bitches Brew, I happened to be sharing a flat with two jazz students. I learned a lot from them. Within their discipline, they were wrestling with the same things I was in my dance training. Take improvisation for instance. Dance shares a relationship with every musical genre since the two media show a strong mutual compatibility. Yet what is so interesting about jazz is how the practice of improvisation has always been at the very core of the genre. That has always fascinated me, mainly because my experience with improvisational practices in dance was only in an infant stage at the time. As a choreographer, I found it difficult to justify the use of improvisation, whereas for jazz musicians this has always been the norm.
De Keersmaeker: In the ‘80s, I had the habit of writing out my choreographies in great detail. I didn't really undertake any profound research into improvisational practices back then. Yet I was constantly surrounded by musicians, who introduced me to Miles Davis and John Coltrane. With the start of PARTS, and the arrival of teachers from other traditions and different practices, I became much more interested in improvisation as an instrument to explore new choreographical vocabularies, and the different ways in which they are capable of structuring movements in time and space. The difference between the instant composition typical to improvisation and the slower process of actually writing came to the foreground when working with Aka Moon on In Real Time in 2001. One might say there is no real freedom in freedom – there is only freedom in structure. Yet how rigorous can a structure remain while retaining the ability to allow dancers to use it in an open manner? What it all came down to in the end was the task of evolving from choreographies with an external structure, like Fase, to different kinds of structures that forced you to take instantaneous decisions and choices.
The notion of transcribing musical pieces into neat scores has always been a predominantly Western habit. In Indian music, for instance, there simply is no word for the practice of ‘improvisation’. In African traditions, too, the idea that musicians make instant decisions within a fixed structure is a part of the very definition of music.
Sanchis: And that should, in fact, be the norm in dance, too. To claim, as a dancer, that one should be able to improvise should really not be considered as extraordinary.
De Keersmaeker: The history of jazz is one of improvisation. Yet some historical studio recordings are to jazz what a score is to classical music. A Love Supreme is precisely one of these historical recordings meant for jazz posterity. Coltrane first drafted sketches for what would come to be known A Love Supreme, and then went on to record the piece in one single take.
Sanchis: The piece is different from Coltrane’s other pieces in that he considered this to be more of a composition while his previous records weren’t really that compositional. Coltrane was known especially for taking existing iconic melodies and (re)interpreting them over and over again. He was a real player, to use common jazz parlance: A Love Supreme is a piece in four parts which was written in one single day. It was a kind of spiritual revelation, which he presented as a short opera of sorts.
How important is the spiritual charge of the piece?
De Keersmaeker: In the ‘60s, Chinese spirituality had a far-reaching influence on pretty much the entirety of the American art scene. This influence was particularly strong with John Coltrane, who also came from a tradition of preachers. A Love Supreme is based on a poem he wrote. Jazz historian Ashley Kahn wrote in his book A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album that there are many layers to the piece: African polyrhythms, modal jazz, gospel and blues. The spiritual aspirations of the piece were equally crucial. It was also one of the last pieces Coltrane played together with his regular quartet, made of musicians such as McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones.
Sanchis: The fact that A Love Supreme was made by a quartet, the members of which had known each other for such a long time and had so much experience, ensured that they didn’t even need to rehearse to make something interesting happen.
As a dancer, how do you learn to improvise to music that is already carried by improvisation?
Sanchis: We also studied the practice of improvisation with other musical pieces than Coltrane’s. Obviously there is a significant difference between improvising with musicians whilst being on stage and improvising to a recorded piece of music – the advantage of the latter is that one can easily establish a clear choreographic plan. To a great extent, the dancing mirrors what happens in the musical score: you work with the fixed materials of the melody and the main theme. When the musicians start to improvise, the dancers will do so as well. Or at least one dancer at a time while the others continue to dance together. If two dancers decide to improvise at the same time, it might be more difficult, although the same holds for musical improvisation.
De Keersmaeker: Of course, the decision to link each dancer with one specific instrument was crucial. In the original version, Cynthia Loemij took on the role of Coltrane, Igor Shyshko was Elvin Jones, Salva was McCoy Tyner, and Moya Michael was Garrisson. We’ll do the same this time with José Paulo dos Santos, Bilal El Had, Jason Respilieux and Thomas Vantuycom respectively. Each of those dancers will focus on a given musician. The time frame is indicated by the music, while the spatial frame is set by the choreography – what’s left is a subtext that might not be present in a physical manner, but nonetheless has a strong influence.
What improvisation tools are available to the dancers?
De Keersmaeker: Basic phrases linked to musical themes, spatial loops, short cells that correspond with the bass lines and are therefore repetitive yet can be arranged freely on a spatial level. And when, subsequently, the musicians engage in solos, like Coltrane in the first movement or Tyner in the second, the fixed vocabulary can be transformed by making ad hoc choices.
Sanchis: Improvising to Coltrane’s playing is also different from improvising to Tyner’s. That is mainly due to the fact that they’re different personalities, but also because the sax is a melodic instrument, while the piano is more harmonic. But for the purpose of improvisation, listening to the music provides endless possibilities. Even when you’ve listened to it a hundred times. For instance, in the first part, Coltrane shows an interesting playfulness when he repeats a series of three notes. Taken into consideration, one can think of equivalents in dance to work with. There are many things like that to play with. I remember that, at the time, the tour was a continuous process of discovery. Dancing fixed materials can be that, too, but with improvisation it is necessary to keep trying and experimenting on stage.
Improvisation is listening.
De Keersmaeker: Dancing is always listening. My listening is my dancing. One challenge is the speed, however. With Coltrane there are many notes, to put it mildly. You need to find a good translation for that in your dance because the emotional speed can only be matched to a certain degree.
Sanchis: The first and the last sections are slower and more conservative, but that is almost an excuse for the veritable hurricane of energy in the middle section. You won’t be able to provide an answer to the energy of the music in the dance if you simply wear yourself out too quickly. The dancers must be able to efficiently convey the energy of the music to an audience. And they have to stay in mutual interplay. When a dancer improvises, he or she doesn’t do that to simply push another dancer who is currently performing the fixed material into the background, but to create a dynamic between them. The improvisor continuously cites the composed material, just like Coltrane who always returns to the music when he is improvising and always listens to the bassist and the drummer when playing together. There is no hierarchy among the different instruments and the different interpreters.
De Keersmaeker: Perhaps, as choreographers and dancers, we don’t leave behind the same traces as composers do, but I do consider it an artistic challenge to provide a choreographic answer to the compositions that are benchmarks in music history. This is how we may be able to pay tribute to the power of the embodiment of contemporary dance. I’m looking forward to doing that now with a new generation of brilliant, young dancers.
Interview realised by Michaël Bellon