Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker about Golden Hours (As you like it)

Published on 30.01.2015, 14:18

Oh me oh my! I think it’s been an eternity. You'd be surprised at my degree of uncertainty. (Brian Eno)

Your new performance bears the title of a song by Brian Eno, “Golden Hours,” from his last rock-music album Another Green World, before he turned to ambient music. How did you come to choose this song for your new choreography? Where does the creation of Golden Hours begin?

In the last years, I’ve become more selective about the music I still want to work with. A trajectory of specific choices can be traced back to Zeitung, which focused on investigating harmony in Western music from Bach to Webern, and Keeping Still, The Song and 3Abschied, which apart from the music of Mahler included pop music. My interest in pop music dates from that period. I remember asking Alain Franco, pianist, conductor and musical dramaturge with whom I collaborated in Zeitung, “what other music is good besides Bach?” Franco said, jokingly, “the Beatles.”

Earlier on, my wish was to study and make a journey through the history of pop music, since it is the music which we are most related to in our daily social lives. Pop music brings together melody, rhythm, dancing, poetry, and a certain kind of theatricality, a spectacle. So, in The Song, the work I made with the artists Ann Veronica Janssens and Michel François, I took the Beatles’ White Album as the underlying material. The dancers rewrote some of the songs from the album, but then there are long sequences of movement in silence, as well as sequences composed with the sound of the foley artist who was producing sounds of concrete materiality in relation to bodily movement. The central quest of The Song was the relationship between movement and sound in the very concrete sense of the phenomenon and its perception. What is the sound of bodily movement? When one is dancing in silence, is there music that emerges from the dancing movement itself? What if dancers made music themselves? This creation was like laboratory research, including one new significant step in the development of my choreographic tools at the time. First, it is “walking” as the logic of composing the time and space of the movement, the principle I refer to as “my walking is my dancing.” And second, it is “talking” as the logic of socializing relations between various bodies in movement, the principle I refer to as “my talking is my dancing.” I should add that in the choice of music for The Song, the record Another Green World was in consideration too, besides the Beatles. I was in doubt for a long time about whether I should make a choreography to The White Album or to “Golden Hours.” Finally, I opted for the Beatles, and “froze” Eno’s “Golden Hours” for later.

After Vortex Temporum, a choreography to the music of Gérard Grisey you recently made, Golden Hours, based on Eno’s music, presents a contrast of sorts.

Indeed, the complex and dense structure of Grisey’s spectral music mirrored in Vortex will be contrasted here with ultimate simple melodiousness. Yet, my interest in exploring the perception of time in dance carries on consistently from Vortex to Golden Hours. In Golden Hours, it will be linked to the song that perpetually repeats itself. I remember listening to the music of Brian Eno and the band Roxy Music in the period of Fase and Rosas danst Rosas in the 1980s, but I don’t recall how I recently rediscovered the song “Golden Hours.” I admit I have a pure love relationship with this song. And I link with it a somewhat childish desire for compulsive repetition: it’s one of those songs you never get tired of, and you want to hear it again and again and again…

Eno explains that he works like a painter, a nonmusician bricoleur who treats the studio as an instrument. You, on the contrary, are a systematic choreographer with a penchant for rigorous structuring. What is it in this piece of Eno’s music that specifically draws you to it now?

I appreciate the amateurish low-fi approach to technology in this piece of early electronic pop, verging on ambient music. One can hear how the song has been made in the studio—layer by layer, where Eno’s gift for engineering sound manifests itself. A quirky sense of craftsmanship of a self-made sound wizard. Eno recorded his voice singing the melody seven times, and he successively added other instruments, recording each of the quite famous star musicians one by one (the guitarist Robert Fripp, the violist John Cale from Velvet Underground) while using funny signatures in the song credits (for example, Eno himself is credited with “choppy organs, spasmodic percussion, club guitars, and uncertain piano”). 

This music is light, and humorous in an absurd way. It is also tinged with a sense of melancholy that touches me. Eno told me he deliberately wanted to make music that still had an emotional connection that didn’t depend on a narrative or on a person. Its melody and colors, in combination with the lyrics, feel like an expression on the top of a mountain or an iceberg. Such expression hides many layers of lived experience beneath the words, allowing them to be interpreted in many ways.

In the midst of enigmatic and sometimes even nonsensical verses, the motif of time is recurrent, interweaving the idea of reversing and slowing down time with circularity and loops, i.e. a cyclical notion of time:

Oh me oh my / I think it's been an eternity / You'd be surprised / At my degree of uncertainty / How can moments go so slow / Several times / I've seen the evening slide away / Watching the signs / Taking over from the fading day / Perhaps my brains are old and scrambled / Changing water into wine / Putting the grapes back on the vine.” How do these lines speak to your choreography?

The general framework for the choreography is the song “Golden Hours” in repetition. All dancers will “step” to it, that is, create a relentless and imperturbable course of unisono movement in a series of lines drawn from upstage to downstage. The motion of the dance chorus approaching audience, and going away from it, to and fro, provides the ground of quantified, chronometric time, out of which always different individuals emerge. Individual dancers in varying constellations will break the regular pace of the chorus with temporally unpredictable and fitful, expressive outbursts of dancing. These two temporal regimes are in tension, which is similar to the sense of a suspended motion with a question mark. As Eno says, “You’d be surprised/At my degree of uncertainty”…  

In addition to Eno’s “Golden Hours,” you are also using a theater play as a structural element. While knowing the play isn’t crucial for the reception of this choreography, some questions about the choice of the text and how it is reworked into a choreography are still of interest.

Just as I was interested in working with classical music, such as Mozart and Bach, I have also been contemplating the idea of working choreographically with a Shakespeare text. And I did it for the first time in Partita, where a sonnet by Shakespeare serves as a hidden metanarrative framework. This famous sonnet, beginning with “Shall I compare thee with a summer’s day,” ends with the following verse: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” It invokes two themes of choreographic importance to me: the breath, which I am currently investigating as a choreographic principle (“My breathing is my dancing”), and the gaze.

Although I wanted to work with text again after a long break, I decided not to have it spoken on stage. I thought that this is not what I was best at, and that my main means of composition were abstract formal movement. I also hesitated about choosing a play by Shakespeare, since it is, like Bach, a cultural monument loaded with a history of interpretations. But then soon enough I came across and opted for As You Like It (AYLI), which isn’t one of those king-tragedies whose weight carries a burden of duty in reading. AYLI is a pastoral love comedy with a number of topics linked to the questions I’ve been asking myself in recent years. First off, it is the issue of time. Then it is the play of genders and sexual identities, due to disguise, and therefore also a play within a play.

It’s probably the queerest of all Shakespeare’s plays, with the intrigue in the plot which relies on shifting roles and playfully multiplying the guises, as in,  for instance, a man playing a female character, which was a custom in the Elizabethan age. The male actor playing a woman cross-dresses into a man, and as a man asks for the love of another man.

Despite the homoerotic element, As You Like It affirms the power of the feminine. The central figure, Rosalind, is considered the most elaborated and profound female character in Shakespeare, surpassing Ophelia, Cordelia, or Lady Macbeth . . .

Rosalind is the one who resolves a complicated entanglement of conflicts between two pairs of brothers, and all that by the cunning of her game of seduction and examining the determination of love in males.

More than that, the utopian motif of returning to the golden world of nature, represented in the Forest of Arden, resonates with my environmentalist concerns. AYLI contrasts two worlds: the one of the court as the place of malign intrigues and the other of the forest, in which a part of the court retreats in order to find a more harmonious mode of existence. This implicitly links to the pressing concern which will be central in the decades to come: the environmental issues about human life on the Earth, and our relation to nature, which has gone out of balance. It is a manifold concern on several levels, whether it is about global warming, or the societies with the political and economic causes and consequences associated with our treatment of the environment. We are having this interview on a warm Christmas day in the warmest year in the last three-hundred years.

Which elements from AYLI do you transpose into choreography?

First of all, I’d like to underline that even though there is a plot which is a source of characters and relations between the dancers as well as eventually their movements in space, it isn’t necessary for the audiene to understand the story and follow it. The dancers are guided by interpreting one or more characters, which changes from scene to scene. Nor is it important to know concretely what they are thinking and “saying” to themselves in every moment. This approach to text as an underlying structural anchorage corresponds to several works I made recently, such as En Atendant and Cesena, where there are poems or historical plots that inspire relations between dancers beyond formal-structural patterns, increasing the sense of meaningfulness without explicit meaning.

One can perceive without being familiar with the play, relations between the bodies being constantly made and unmade in parallel choreographic and dramatic senses. One also notices gestures and manners of dancing which are associable with certain character traits, or even in a more abstract sense, with what the Ancients called “humors,” or affects socialized here (anger, pride, resolve, longing, pain, etc.)

My main interest in using Shakespeare is linked with the principle “my talking is my dancing,” which I’m investigating further in this creation. It is based on creating a social dimension of communication between dancers through movement, often foregrounding arms and hands. Studying AYLI, I discovered an additional parameter of  “my talking is my dancing” which I hadn’t worked with previously: the gaze. In Shakespeare’s story the gaze brings about love at first sight, and in choreography it is the ultimate device of creating and mastering the space. The spectator’s experience of space can vary so much according to a choreography of the gaze, which I am undertaking here.

In the dancers here, we can perceive a different sense of the urge to move, different than when they are motivated by a formal relation to music.

The further I investigate “my talking is my dancing,” the more I understand how important intention in the genesis of movement is. This relates to Far Eastern thought, according to which the first and foremost thing is intention; then comes energy; and the form of actual physical movement is only the third instance. Words express thoughts, ideas, and images, so how do these thoughts motivate dancing? How can movement embody thought?

Apart from dancing as if speaking, another and perhaps an even a greater challenge has been how to embody listening. How do you choreographically translate the attention of listening into the body when there is no sound of speech?

We shouldn’t underestimate a special effort that the dancers undertake in learning by heart a large part of the play, which in a straightforward staging lasts about three and a half hours. In your choreography, it isn’t only that the dancer that is “speaking” knows her lines by heart, but it is also the dancer who is supposed to be listening that also needs to memorize and recall in herself what she is listening to at that very moment without hearing the actual words. And we are speaking here of long monologues, such as the famous “All the world’s a stage.

Indeed, this belongs to the investigation of the quality of the intention of listening. “My listening is my dancing” is a quest for embodying the reception and mute reaction to another one’s “speaking as dancing.”

Another important parameter is the sophisticated rhythm of Shakespeare’s poetry.     

In the process of searching for how to “speak” movement, each word translates into a movement or a step. This implies a kinetic transposition of the exquisite musicality of Shakespeare’s language: the rhythm of accents on the level of words or sentences transmutes into the syntax of movement, as well as into the expressivity of the body. Secondly, there must be a difference between whispering or shouting, so how does the dynamic of speech shape the energy of movement? Lastly, the relations of agreement or disagreement, or of various kinds of kinship (e.g., sisterhood), rivalry and opposition, correlate with a variety of contact between dancers. How am I going to reach or push or lend support to another according to what I desire, what I long for, or what I am afraid of? This entails a dynamic of relationships between the vertical axis of the walking body and the horizontal axis of the “speaking” body. In addition, we have been exploring the motion of extremities, of hands and feet, which convey the most intricate and refined information about one’s thoughts and feelings. 

The cast of Golden Hours are eleven dancers in their late twenties, early thirties. This imparts a striking sense of youthfulness to the movement. One of them is also a musician, Carlos Garbin, who made a few arrangements of “Golden Hours” and other songs.

Carlos is a talented musician who found a minimal style of arranging pop songs and playing them with his guitar – something he has already done in The Song. Speaking of age, I wouldn’t consider it particularly young. However, the youth of this generation, in particular, does imbue the dancing here with a spirit of lightness and lucidity. On the other hand, I should say that, in difference to my other recent works, this one doesn’t have a predominantly male cast. Instead, women prevail. How do you perceive the make-up of the dance cast yourself?

I sense a sort of looseness and abandon, also with respect to traditional gender identifications. In Golden Hours we might see these boys and girls in more ambiguous libidinal expressions that correspond to contemporary liberal and queer attitudes toward sexuality.

This also has to do with improvisation, which I am investing now in this creation more than ever. Most of these young dancers have wonderful skills of improvisation. Some of them are keen and excellent improvisers, and with everyone I search for individual idiosyncratic movement language. At this point, one question still remains: how precise and fixed is the choreographic writing going to be? Or, how firm will the structural framework in which the dancers can improvise be? We are still tuning the relationship between choreography and improvisation some weeks before the premiere. And it’s sort of risky business—I’m very much aware of it. In that sense you would be “surprised at my degree of uncertainty.” But that’s the place I want to be at the moment.