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 created—or, rather, wrote and improvised—a first version of their choreographic interpretation of John 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 artists blend together. Or, rather, 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—both a spiritual submission and 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 first wrote a prayer in words, then transposed 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 was of a physical rather than a musical kind: to transpose note after note of Coltrane’s music into movement. Sanchis—once a student at PARTS, now a teacher at the 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 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 had been improvised, since it was far too precise. I think that’s 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 what is written and what is improvised?

Sanchis: I understand your question, but I’m afraid it reveals some persistent misconceptions regarding the notion of improvisation. Improvisation is not a style; it’s not even an aesthetic 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 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 extemporaneous. Actually, it’s precisely the other way around: one renders the set material precisely, as precisely 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 at that very moment. 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 results in a more authentic rendering of the piece. As an improviser, you hit certain combinations of movements, 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, others simply “happen” to them. Sometimes they are dancing, sometimes they are “being danced.” These are decisions that the dancers themselves are in charge of, but there are also options that present themselves spontaneously, which may subsequently be integrated into their personal choreographies. Strangely enough, as a performer, I recognize 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 millimeter-long maneuvering space while dancing and, as a result, another immense
space opens up within it—a space with innumerable possibilities and variations. That comes very close to Salva’s experience when he is improvising, the only difference 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, as a choreographer, do you approach the spiritual energy he meant to convey?

De Keersmaeker: To me A Love Supreme is essentially about defying gravity. It is about the relationship between humankind and the planet, between the vertical and the horizontal. That’s what having a spine allows us to do as humans, of course: to organize our center 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, for suspending gravity. It involves an element of hubris, which probably makes it all the more human.

Because, obviously, the task of suspending gravity is 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 that 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—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, 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 that they remove themselves from their personal struggles, their own dance with gravity, and provide one another with mutual support—they now have to keep one another from falling. Beyond that, they take turns lifting one another into the air. Any notion of internal hierarchy now vanishes: it is about caring, about carrying one another. It’s an activity with 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 recall from art history, without being able to quite put your finger on it. For that task the dance doesn’t reveal quite enough yet—it remains too abstract. Or maybe too concrete. Ultimately they are just dancers lifting each other. Above all you see a form of surrender, vulnerability, and therefore also trust. On the one hand, A Love Supreme suggests a love aimed at the divine, something that is “supreme,” but on the other it suggests that the ultimate form of love is really neighborly 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 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 they do is call somebody, talk about it, mourn together. Spirituality doesn’t necessarily have to be transcendent.

Sanchis: While creating the piece, we talked a lot with the dancers about what we understood as transcendental in the first place. Take for instance the blues scale at the musical core of A Love Supreme’s theme. It is a scale with five notes, which is the same number as fingers on the hand. It is a scale that is equally present in every human culture, from Japan to Africa to Europe, as if there is something out there that people plug into everywhere, independently. Even our traditions and the experiences encapsulated in our
genetic makeup express themselves in and through us. You could say that this transcends us, yet it is present in us, fixed inside us, like a kind of ancient sediment. It appeals to an experience of the world that predates language. That is precisely why I often find musicians enormously spiritual, because they communicate outside a regular linguistic register and can express experiences beyond the merely semiotic. Dance is also like that,
but more grounded by its very nature, and thus more earthbound. 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