Choreographer and dancers : a complementary relationship

Published on 27.01.2019, 14:30

When asked about my inspirations, my answer has always been, “Music is my first partner. If choreography is the organization of movement in time and space, the main source I turn to for guidance is music.” Lately, however, I have come to realize that this is not entirely accurate. Indeed, music has been my partner, but equally important are my partners the other dancers, with whom I share the very practice of writing and making dance. Each of the more than fifty pieces I have made over the last thirty-eight years was the result of an intense creative process I underwent together with the dancers. The work might carry my signature, and it might have been me who made the initial and final decisions. But the piece became what it was because of those other dancers. Their bodies in all their different aspects (mechanical, sensual, emotional, social, intellectual) are intertwined with the genetic code of the choreography.

The relationship between a choreographer and a dancer cannot be compared to any other creative process. It can be extremely powerful, but also complex and fragile, especially in contemporary dance. As opposed to ballet, where you can name movements (“pas de bourrée,” “grand jeté”) there is no codified language in modern dance. Therefore, since the beginning of the twentieth century, its history has been defined and articulated by the names of individual choreographers: we speak of “the Merce Cunningham technique,” of “the Martha Graham technique,” of different “schools.” The notion of signature, or rather authorship, prevails. But against this powerful position of the choreographer stands the fact that the development of the actual vocabulary and of the individual, “signature” choreographic language is always the result of working with a smaller or larger community of dancers. This paradoxical relation exists even in the largest companies: there is a strong hierarchy, but at the same time the choreographic material is anchored in an almost intimate sharing of the creative project among individuals. As a choreographer, you put forward certain questions or problems and you decide upon the final answers, but the exploration of possibilities is an intensely social process that is highly specific to dance.

There is a mutual dependency between dancer and choreographer. Although the former might need the latter’s guidance and direction, the latter can only think out his or her pieces with the input and cooperation of the other. No abstract pattern can ever materialize without the enactment of a body. The essential nature of this relationship brings with it possible problems and controversies, such as when authorship deviates into relations of power and exploitation. It is a delicate issue, of which we have become even more aware given the recent media attention to “Me Too.” So, in view of recent events and in view of my own trajectory and experiences, I think this is the right time to reconsider and ponder the exact nature of the relation between choreographer and dancer. When working together, you are indeed asking the dancers to be extremely generous, while at the same time they might remain in a state of extreme dependency on you. The process is so utterly different from composing music, writing a book, or creating visual arts in the sense that people are involved with the totality of their being: you engage not only the dancers’ minds, but also their bodies, which together define their individuality.

For The Six Brandenburg Concertos, a crucial aim was to bring different generations of dancers together, even though this is “young” music—it is a celebration of life, forward and upward, jubilant and full of vital force. At the time, Johann Sebastian Bach had brilliant musicians (as well as exceedingly good instruments) at his disposal, and he wrote this music to make them excel—rather in the same way that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote some of his most beautiful vocal music with particular singers in mind, out of deep admiration for their talents and capacities. Something similar was behind my invitation to these different generations of dancers to work together. Some of them have been with the company for many years, even decades; others have only been involved for a short while; so we have quite a range in age and experience. This created an almost political situation, exploring how we could work together as a group, leveraging both the craftsmanship, knowledge, and experience of the more mature dancers and the younger dancers’ nearly alchemical confluence of energy, willingness to take risks, and openness to unknown territory.

The process was intense, and at moments highly demanding, not least because of the large size of the group. I had to keep the ship on course, with everybody on the same track, making sure our main priority was not social issues but artistic decisions. The most important rule of working in a group is that people want to be enabled to give their best, and I find that the greatest responsibility is finding a way to return this. The difficulty lies in the fact that as a choreographer, at moments you are fragile yourself. You go through so many moments of doubt. Often you don’t know the solution, and to keep the artistic research going despite this can be quite a challenge. But it is part of the process—a process I return to again and again. It has become not only a way of working, but almost a way of living, and my encounters in the making of dance stay with me in every other part of my life’s journey. 

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker