An Improvisation with Gravity

Published on 26.02.2017, 10:14

With their new production A Love Supreme, Salva Sanchis and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker return to an old love. In 2005, they already created – or rather, wrote and improvised – a first version of their choreographic interpretation of Coltrane's masterpiece A Love Supreme (1964). The basic principles of the piece have remained the same: four dancers, each of whom dances a duet with each of the members of the Coltrane quartet. Still today viewers have difficulty registering where the choreographies of these two extremely divergent yet like-minded people blend together. Or, where choreography stops, and improvisation takes over.

It takes courage and humility to dance Coltrane's legendary album. Indeed, A Love Supreme is as much a humble homage as it is a proud affirmation of Coltrane’s identity as an artist and believer – a spiritual submission as much as an artistic assault on heaven. “One senses”, De Keersmaeker asserts, “that Coltrane’s record contains a unique accumulation of energy, a focal point for the creative powers of his quartet, his epoch, and his community.”

The final part of Coltrane’s suite (Psalm), is played without improvisation. Coltrane wrote a prayer, first in words, to then transpose it, one syllable at a time, to a melody played by himself. De Keersmaeker and Sanchis did the same in their piece, but the translational struggle they faced in making the piece seemed to be of a physical rather than a musical kind: to transpose note after note of Coltrane’s music into movement. Salva Sanchis – once a student at PARTS, now a teacher at the very same school, in addition to being a choreographer himself – wrote out dance phrases for each of the core motifs in the first three parts of the suite. These constitute the raw material the dancers use to improvise. “The nicest compliment we received”, according to Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, “was from Fabrizio Cassol, the saxophonist of Aka Moon. After having seen the performance, he informed me that he thought it was simply impossible that the piece would have been improvised, since it was way too precise. I think that is exactly what we’re aiming for: the impossibility of ever truly distinguishing between the written base and the improvised material.”

How do you explain the audience's inability to distinguish between the written and the improvised material ?

Sanchis: ‘I understand your question, but I’m afraid it reveals some rather persistent misconceptions on the whole notion of improvisation as such. Improvisation is not a style, it’s not even an esthetical choice. At most it is – like writing – a way to ‘get’ oneself to dance. The whole idea of improvisation as 'not knowing what is going to happen' is not very helpful. In essence, I mean to do the opposite: if nothing is cast in stone beforehand, some additional guiding elements are required. This has less to do with curbing freedom and more to do with giving direction. That A Love Supreme seems improvised is not because the written base material appears so open and improvised. Actually, it’s precisely the other way around: one renders the set material precise, as precise as possible, so as to force the improviser to be as precise as possible too. I want to improvise such that you believe everything I do is the only possible thing I could do. And that I did it exactly the way I wanted to. I don't want you to see that I'm searching, that I'm still figuring out what to do myself at that very moment. Thus I want to make my improvisation look as clear and as precise as possible, as determined as can be.”

What, then, is the added value of having those moves improvised ?

Sanchis: “A sense of involvement, dedication – during improvisation dancers operate with a higher degree of intuition, with an ‘incorporated experience’ in play, which of course also results in a more authentic rendering of the piece. As an improviser, you hit certain combinations of movements, you are doing things so quickly and in such detail that it is impossible to write down. Maybe you could, but it would take an enormous amount of time. In that respect, improvisation is also simply more efficient.”

De Keersmaeker: “Another striking thing about improvisation is the balance one has to maintain between creativity and receptiveness, between speaking and listening. This also holds for the dancers of A Love Supreme. Some of their movements are chosen consciously, other movements simply ‘happen’ to them; sometimes they are dancing, sometimes they are ‘being danced’. These are decisions that the dancers themselves are in charge of, which they may subsequently integrate into their personal choreographies. Strangely enough, as a performer, I recognise that very experience of passivity, but in a converse situation: the sense of freedom when I’m dancing material written out in extreme detail, like the score for Piano Phase. The tighter the structure, the freer the experience. It’s as if one zooms in on a millimetre-long manoeuvring space whilst dancing and, as a result, another immense space opens up within it, a space with innumerable possibilities and variations. And that, in turn, comes very close to Salva's experience when he is improvising, the only being that we arrive at it from entirely opposite directions.

Sanchis: “In the end it really makes no difference. Yet only in the end.”

To Coltrane, A Love Supreme was an outspokenly spiritual statement. How do you approach the spiritual energy he meant to convey as a choreographer ?

De Keersmaeker: “To me A Love Supreme is essentially a piece about defying gravity. It is a piece about the relationship between mankind and the planet, between the vertical and the horizontal. That's what having a spine allows us to do as human, of course: to organise our centre of gravity to render it perpendicular to the earth's surface. It allows us to move away from the gravitational energy exerted by the earth with maximum efficiency. There is an ambiguity in that which is also contained in Coltrane's music. It reaches to the heavens in homage to the divine, but reaching to the heavens also implies an aspiration for boundlessness, for flying; that is: suspending gravity. It involves an element of hubris, which probably makes it all the more human.”

Because, obviously, the task of suspending gravity is a task simply beyond us.

De Keersmaeker: Indeed, that is a given, much like the ‘fact’ of mortality. One cannot dance ‘beyond’ gravity. However, one can try to dance ‘with’ it. One could compare it to the centrifugal movement which allows a runner to run at an angle, as long as one does it quickly enough. Or the game of loss and recovery of balance. That doesn't even require a very spiritual perspective. The way somebody walks, somebody's gait, or, in other words, how somebody ‘deals’ with gravity and the verticality it entails, automatically carries an emotional connotation. Somebody who lets everything ‘hang’ or somebody who walks with their head held high take on two entirely different postures. Not only physically, but also in relation to the world. Much like those postures, our relationship with gravity also concerns our relationship with the divine. The tension between the two, between us trying to reach out and us keeping to the ground, is what makes us human. It might pose a limit, but it also defines us as humans. ’.”

In the fourth and final part of the suite, the Psalm, whose musical score has the most explicitly religious feel, the visual language of the choreographer also seems to flirt with religious iconography.

De Keersmaeker: “It is in any case the first time the dancers actually come to touch each other in the piece. It is only at this point they remove themselves from their personal struggle, their own dance with gravity, and provide each other with mutual support. As such they have now to keep each other from falling. Beyond that, they take turns lifting each other into the air. Any notion of internal hierarchy now vanishes: it is about caring, about carrying each other – it’s an activity which a strong sense of physical empathy. In essence, the dance now becomes more pictorial or sculptural. As a spectator, you might feel like you’re facing forms of iconic imagery you may remember from art history, but without being able to quite put your finger on it. For that task the dance doesn't reveal quite enough yet – it remains just about too abstract. Or maybe too concrete: ultimately they are just dancers lifting each other. Above all, you see a form of surrender, of vulnerability, and therefore also of trust. On the one hand, A Love Supreme suggests a love aimed at the divine, something that is 'supreme', but on the other hand, it also suggests that the ultimate form of love is really neighbourly love, to literally ‘carry each other’. It could also be a form of playing together, like the quartet does, putting one's own ego on hold, making oneself capable of collective communication.”

Sanchis: “The final scene could also just express a simple idea: that you are not going to make it on your own. You notice that when people are confronted with something bigger, like the attacks in Brussels: the first thing you do is call somebody, talk about it, mourn together.”

Spirituality doesn't necessarily have to be transcendent ?

Sanchis: “During the process of creating the piece, we talked a lot with the dancers about what we understood by the ‘transcendental’ in the first place. Take for instance the blues scale that is at the musical core of A Love Supreme's theme. It is a scale with five notes, which is the same number of notes as the fingers on our hand. It is a scale that is equally present in every human culture, from Japan to Africa and Europe, as if there is something out there that we people plug into everywhere, independent of each other. Even our traditions and the experience that is encapsulated in our genetic make-up express themselves in and through us. You could say that this transcends us, yet it is something that is present in us. It is more something fixed inside us, like a kind of ancient sediment, than something that transcends us. It appeals to an experience of the world that antedates language. That is precisely why I often find musicians enormously spiritual, presumably because they communicate outside a regular linguistic register and can express experiences that are beyond the merely semiotic. Dance is also like that but is more grounded by its very nature, as such it is more ‘earth-bound’. Dancing is simply impossible when separated from the ground we stand on. This makes dance at once abstract and concrete: bodies moving in time and space, with gravity as support, as a counter force, a liberating form of confinement.”

Wannes Gyselinck