A conversation with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker about Achterland

Published on 23.02.2018, 17:12

With the restaging of Fase and Rosas danst Rosas, Rosas has returned to the business of performing work from the early 80s. Additionally, pieces such as Rain and Drumming, also recently recast, were created just before and after the turn of the millennium. Repertoire pieces like A Love Supreme and Zeitung, in turn, date from a subsequent period. Is the new take on Achterland a first step in casting work from the early ‘90s in a new light?

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker: the repertoire is fairly large, of course, but certainly not all pieces from the repertoire lend themselves to being transmitted to new generations of dancers. Occasionally, performances feel as if they are so thoroughly grafted onto specific dancers, onto their very presence on stage and onto their technique that they have become difficult to separate. This is, for example, the case with Stella, the piece that came before Achterland and which was firmly anchored in the personalities of the five women from the original cast. It seemed a rather perilous idea to “transpose” such pieces into a contemporary setting.

Nonetheless, Achterland has material from Stella in it. Would this make it a transposition?

That is correct, but the purpose was completely different. The challenge with Achterland was threefold. Firstly, the return to a pure choreographic writing. Verkommenes Ufer, Ottone Ottone and Stella were more theatrical performances, for which the presence of text or opera was especially important in establishing a narrative line. After that experience, I wanted to return to a purely ‘dance-based’ language with Achterland, one that was specific in its absolute fidelity to the musical score. The second challenge consisted of the works with live music, which was turned on in Bartók/Mikrokosmos, from the idea of creating a “dance concert”. Consequently, the presence of the musicians on the stage had to be integrated into the performance. And the third element was the development of new choreographic material for male dancers.

Did your investigation in this piece at a certain point “require” you to write out new material for men?

Achterland had, as far as that was concerned, a precedent in Mikrokosmos: Johanne Saunier danced with Jean Luc Ducourt in that performance. Already then, I had to come up with a new motoric vocabulary that didn’t exist in my own body. But Achterland didn’t directly elaborate further on that. The movement material for the men was more an extension of the floor work from Rosas danst Rosas, but in a more dynamic vein. In it you’ll find the seeds for the choreography that I later wrote to Beethoven’s Die Grosse Fuge[1].

Could you tell us something about the choreography for men and for women that saw its inception at the very same time during the production process? How did you experience this challenge, and were you able to discern any cross-fertilisation?

The basis for the choreographic writing is that the women dance to the etudes for piano by Ligeti, and the men dance to Ysaÿe’s violin sonatas. Even though they end up together at the end of the performance, in practice it meant that rehearsals were mainly held on a separate basis, this meaning, quite literally, in different studios. But a significant “common denominator” is certainly the work which takes place the floor itself – the falling, rolling and getting up – which, after Rosas danst Rosas, never truly reappeared in my creations. Furthermore, the women’s vocabulary, in part borrowed from Stella, was largely dictated by the personal capacities of the dancers themselves. Johanne Saunier and Nathalie Million, for example, were exceptionally agile and technical in developing the floor work. But that was also the case with the men: Vincent Dunoyer had previously worked with Wim Vandekeybus, and had therefore developed a certain amount of technical expertise. The specific characteristics of the dancers always play roles when producing new material.

You also used the musical score as a guide when drafting the piece.

Of course! Ligeti’s piano études are masterful, with a musical structure influenced by fractal geometry and the so-called concept of the ‘Mandelbrot set’. That said, they also include sincere parts of romantic piano music, that somehow reminds one of Chopin. That masterful aspect can also be found in Ysaÿe’s music – the element of high speed, for example. As such, finding a choreographic answer for this music was a great challenge. When compiling the vocabulary, we were regularly confronted with limitations where creating the speed in movement was concerned, or at least the perception of such speed. We had to proceed very carefully to find a suitable way to translate notions of speed, synchronisation and fractal geometry into bodily movements. Isolating parts of the body helped here. Vincent Dunoyer’s rapid hip movements, which were initially danced more slowly in Nathalie Million’s performance, were originally a purely technical answer to the speed of the violin in the finale of the 4th sonata.

The musicians are also part of the stage setting. Does this choice make an even sharper exposure of the relationship between dance and music possible ?

This is not the first time that musicians appeared on stage in a Rosas piece. They did so in Bartók and Mikrokosmos, but at the time the choice was not made from the outset. Achterland in contrast was the first Rosas performance that would première in De Munt, so live music would have been crucial. The experience certainly acted as an incentive for a further exploration of the relationship with live music. Having musicians on stage meant the music and the choreography could come closer together so that they could react more attentively to each other, whilst providing mutual clarification. Achterland, in this sense, was the beginning of a journey that even now is far from over.

Floor Keersmaekers

[1] Danced by 8 men.