Interview with Boris Charmatz and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker about Partita 2

Published on 12.01.2013, 12:26

Partita 2

In A Choreographer’s Score, you say that you were also working with Bach’s music while you were rehearsing your first piece, Violin Phase. Do you have the feeling that in Bach’s Partita No. 2 you are going back to the beginning again?

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker: At that time I was starting from scratch and had to learn in very concrete terms how I could put a dance together. In a certain sense working with Steve Reich’s music was a way of teaching myself things. I liked the structure of that music, both repetitive and internalised, mathematical and sensitive, and all those things are to be found in Bach too. For that piece I spent a lot of time in the studio, where I tried all sorts of things over and over again: discovering movements, putting them together, finding a structure. And it’s true there are some compositions by Bach that helped me do that. His music gave me support. At a certain moment I had to take a decision and I opted to create a 15-minute dance set to Violin Phase. A number of ideas gradually presented themselves: repetition, accumulation, the combinations, the ways of linking movements together. The second parameter was the question: ‘How do we organise all this in the space?’ I looked for a geometrical figure in which the repetition could keep on moving and I ended up with the circle. It all grew gradually, step by step, by trial and error. I created my first solo in 1982; that’s thirty years ago.

Boris Charmatz: One of the things you told me, right at the start of this project, was that you asked yourself: ‘What stage is my dance at right now?’ I get the feeling that certain choreographic works oblige you to ask that sort of question, as though they were places you repeatedly returned to – not as an exercise, but to occupy them once again. Do you think that Partita 2 plays that sort of role for you at the moment?

ATDK: In the first four productions I made I danced myself; after that I felt for various reasons that I had to distance myself a little and worked more as a choreographer. At a certain moment I started dancing again. It’s been a long time since I set to work in the studio while asking myself: ‘What does my dance, my way of dancing, look like now?’ And it is truly on the basis of that question that I want to work in Partita 2. It makes me draw on movements that are stored in my body, but it also makes me adopt new attitudes. We shouldn’t forget that in Bach’s Partita everything is dancing and involves great movement. Gigue, courante, allemande: this are first and foremost musical structures derived from folk dances.

So there are ‘old’ layers that are still there. Can you tell me more about how you met and your desire to work together?

ATDK: It all started at the 2011 Avignon Festival, when Boris was the ‘Artiste associé’. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but we said to each other: ‘Let’s dance together sometime, to see what it produces’. We first started improvising. In silence, if I remember rightly.

BC: Yes, it was a sort of workshop where all the elements appeared that we picked up on again later, such as ‘my walking is my dancing’.

ATDK: With Boris it was a real encounter. You don’t often find anyone who is constantly at work as both choreographer and dancer and whose thinking revolves around both, and who also asks himself: ‘What does my dance look like at this moment?’, and who constantly uses this to fuel his work.

In this production you seem to want to give spatiality to the beat by outlining a sort of stepped musical notation in the space. How did you ‘edit’ this score?

BC: We did a lot of work on exposing the counterpoint, the broken line, by concentrating mainly on the bass. We have tried to reveal an underlying structure by adding layer after layer. In short, we follow the bass line and also several elements that seemed important to us. Moments that stand out, that appeal to the imagination – that lead us more towards the saltation and the dance-like aspect of the music.

ATDK: What interests me is that the dance provides the opportunity to bring to the surface the structure of the score, what you might call its foundations. And that we can play on all the direct levels of the music at the same time. That at some moments we can respond directly to what the music induces in our body: rapture, a high, the physical pleasure, the most direct reaction to the sound. The two levels are constantly blending with each other. And the presence of the musician onstage goes with both levels and makes for a different way of visualising the relationship between the body and the music. And in fact Amandine Beyer’s performance gave us a lot of extra insight into the composition, its inner mechanisms and the way we in our turn can perform it. A performance always offers a picture of the working process – being able to rehearse with Amandine Beyer and George Alexander van Dam in these circumstances was both a luxury and a delight. I think the piece will at some point radiate something of the pleasure we got from listening to the music, seeing them, and understanding it together with them.

In a certain sense we again come across what interested you in Reich: the purity of the mathematical structure, but also the sensitivity, which at some points seems almost tormented.

BC: Bach is often seen as a highly abstract composer, but in the Partita, and especially in the chaconne, one spots something physical, something oversensitive. Amandine Beyer, the violinist we are working with, says that in her view Bach’s music is always carrying on a dialogue with God. But those high notes that pierce the eardrum originate in the soul of a man – this is sacrilege, I know – who has been deprived of God, in whom God is lacking.

ATDK: To me Bach means structure, but his transcendent dimension is engraved on the body. There’s a question that always comes up when one takes on a masterpiece: isn’t this too ambitious, wanting to turn this music into choreography? Another question I continue to ask myself is about us as a duo: isn’t it a little risky to put together a ‘man/woman’ duet on this pared-down solo musical basis? Won’t the performance seem rather forced? Sometimes I almost think that we should be able to separate the bodies from each other and make two solos. But at the same time our bodies follow the score, and make the energies or rhythms more palpable than psychologised bodies would.

About this project, Boris Charmatz wrote: ‘There may here be no wish to confront, nor any conscious parallelism, nor any exercise in admiration’. How have you tried to adopt a position in relation to the music without ending up above, below or opposite it?

BC: When Anne Teresa told me she wanted to work with Bach’s music, I thought: ‘Oh dear, that’s not easy…’. To give a well-known example, there are perhaps 95 different performances of The Rite of Spring, a great many of which are highly successful. But I have never seen a successful choreography set to a work by Bach. It is a mountain that has to be climbed. It may be too high, or its construction may be too complex, or too isolated, too abstract – I don’t know. In a certain sense, what we are doing is never at the same level as that abstract architecture. In fact we are trying, rather, to introduce a ‘vibration’, a slight hesitation in the face of the absolute perfection of the music. There is always that doubt: can we achieve anything interesting? Can we match ourselves against a mountain? That’s also why we often walk… to simply move forward alongside the music.

ATDK: Boris once invited me to take part in a Gift workshop for non-professional dancers and we used that music then – the courante and the allemande. I set out a few basic principles and then we got started. We only had an hour and a half. And as I watched them dancing to Bach, I thought: isn’t this actually better? Isn’t it in fact finer when it’s not constructed? A few very simple movements without much technique. The way the body is sucked into that music, the body with all its limitations, with all its desire to reach out to the music, to become one with it.

BC: To me the good thing is precisely that they are both possible. Our work in the studio, trying out, and trying out again, over and over again. And the work with the amateurs done in an hour and a half. Because there is the performance and there is what is left inside us after spending all that time with the music. When I go home in the evening, I keep on softly whistling the Partita, or else it flashes through my mind as I’m falling asleep.

Noted down by Gilles Amalvi, December 2012