Published on 17.06.2019, 09:00
1. Of all the performing arts, professional dance is without doubt the most ephemeral. Dance leaves few tangible traces that continue to be broadly accessible, like for instance music recordings. Unlike theatre, music or opera, it also often lacks an authoritative source text: a written account of the choreography that solidifies the movements of a dance piece into signs akin to letters and thus invites to a re-reading or a re-enactment. The living artistic memory or archive of professional dance therefore appears very limited, resulting in a narrow canon. There is a reason this ‘classical dance repertoire’ largely coincides with a handful of evergreens from ballet history like Giselle, Swan Lake or The Nutcracker. Within the ballet tradition, the notion of choreography still has the double meaning of composition and dance script in the strict sense: a codified ensemble of repeatable signs – an alphabet of well-defined poses or steps like the plié, the tendu or the jeté. This set language constitutes a solid ground for passing on and restaging choreographies, which are essential conditions for establishing a canon and the repertoire practice inspired by it. Yet even in the ballet tradition rewriting clearly outweighs re-enacting. The classics owe their status mainly to their continuous artistic renewal in which process usually only the music and the basic story are preserved. Indeed, the proper restaging of an historically influential ’dance text’ is not customarily in the ballet tradition either. For instance, in addition to Marius Petipa’s original choreography of The Nutcracker, the well-known adaptation of this piece by George Balanchine is regularly performed these days as well. Since the modernisation of dance and the abandonment of ballet conventions, a widely accepted system of signs is lacking – labanotation is only used sporadically – and the quest for innovation has increasingly become the standard. Choreographers meanwhile have to live up the same sort of expectations as found in most other artistic disciplines. They have to develop a personal movement language and choreographic écriture that clearly differ from those of immediate predecessors or contemporaries, and they must produce new work regularly. At the same time, the past few decades have seen performers taking up an ever-increasing role in creating movement material for a choreography, which somewhat moderates the author status of individual dance makers themselves. The ‘emancipation of the dancer’ was furthermore reflected in a significant increase in the number of dance artists who alternate the role of performer with the position of dance maker. Together with the rise in the number of choreographers, this created a strong artistic dynamic starting from the 1980s which helped turn contemporary dance into a fully autonomous genre. However, this evolution has its drawback. These days, only a limited number of companies and even fewer dance organisations pursue the logic of the ensemble and opt for both social sustainability and repertoire. Within contemporary dance dominates the neoliberal project economy with its often precarious working conditions and permanent production pressure. The absence of a collective notation system, the priority innovation of the movement language takes over the (creative) reuse of a shared vocabulary and, more recently, the strong sway project economics holds over the traditional company economics: these three factors severely restrict the possibilities for repertoire in the post-ballet era in general and contemporary dance in particular.
2. Rosas began life in 1982 as a creation company. Starting from the early 1990s, however, more and more of the company’s older work was restaged. After the turn of the century, Rosas gradually increased this focus on re-enactment showing a clear acceleration in the last ten years. Hence, Rosas has already for some time the double identity of creation and repertoire company, which is rather exceptional in the contemporary dance scene. The transformation of earlier productions into repertoire is even deepened further through the performance of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s choreographies by other companies like the ballet companies of the operas of Paris and Lyon or the National Ballet of Portugal. Keeping the Rosas memory vivid for an audience exacts a considerable investment in time, energy and resources. It is obvious that this is a worthwhile effort. A choreography only truly exists when it is embodied in the presence of an audience: without this ‘reading aloud’ the ‘dance text’ remains insignificant, even when written out in full. Moreover, new generations can become acquainted first hand with Rosas’ artistic past through re-enactments, contributing to a better understanding of more recent productions. In that sense, the repertoire and creation function amplify each other. As with any artistic oeuvre, every new work builds on a past that is considered known. Only restagings can help make this premise true and provide sufficient context for recent work, especially for those who have little or no familiarity with previous works. Without the contextual framework of repertoire, creations tend to be dominated by ‘the time of the now’, the logic of the new and the structural oblivion also increasingly pervading contemporary art. An older choreography can be restaged by the original cast, yet this is usually not the case with the Rosas repertoire. In the past, De Keersmaeker by and large worked with a pool of dancers who were all well-acquainted with her dance idiom. Performers often participated in creation processes and subsequently focussed on the restaging of older work, possibly in combination with an artistic career outside of Rosas. In more recent re-enactments, De Keermaeker usually recruits new dancers, including fresh graduates from P.A.R.T.S. That way, learning an existing choreography raises within the own company the same questions as it would when passed on to another company.
3. When a written out ‘dance text’ is lacking, passing on a choreography to new dancers is a multifaceted practice (in essence, repertoire does indeed boil down to trádere, Latin for to pass on and also resounding in the word tradition). Firstly, the choreographer can rely on the contemporary equivalent of the ‘dance text’ in the form of one or several video recordings. Over time, choreography partly evolved into videography: writing down movements on a white piece of paper has been replaced by registering with a camera and a digital memory card turning the observed movements into combinations of zeros and ones. Rosas recognises the importance of video recordings. The Rosas Visual Library has meanwhile become a unique reference collection appreciatively used by art and culture institutions, dance researchers, journalists and other interested parties. Video recordings are also frequently used for restagings. They do, however, only display the ‘outside’, not the proverbial ‘inside’ of a choreography. A video recording may chronicle the product, but disregards the production process: it says little about the intentions and the general vision of the choreographer or the process behind certain decisions; nor does it tell us anything about the contribution of the first cast in the co-creation of material, the way performers internalised selected movements, how they dealt with cues and transitions... These individual memories of both the choreographer and the performers are crucial in any contemporary repertoire practice: there is no dance memory without it. Of course, De Keersmaeker supervises re-enactments from her previous work. Moreover, with the series in three parts A Choreographer’s Score, eight choreographies from various stages in her artistic career were meticulously documented by means of conversations between De Keersmaeker and Bojana Cvejić, drawings, diagrams, photos, choreographic and dramaturgical material, reviews and DVDs. This treasure trove of background information, unparalleled in the contemporary dance scene, offers current and future parties with an interest in the Rosas oeuvre a generous insider perspective of De Keersmaeker’s dance poetics. In an unprecedented way, A Choreographer’s Score practises dance historiography for a series of works several of which have already joined the annals of dance history. At the same time, this triptych, to which there will hopefully be a sequel, provides a solid foundation for every restaging of one of the documented choreographies. A Choreographer’s Score takes stock of De Keersmaeker’s memory, thereby turning it into potential repertoire. A contemporary dance repertoire also owns much to the body memory of the original cast of performers. Through their contribution to the choreography’s movement material they possess incorporated first-rate knowledge of specific gestures or poses. They were furthermore direct witnesses of compositional decisions, helped come up with cues or clues for memorising movements when executing the dance score, interpreted remarks by De Keersmaeker, and so forth. Performers who participated in the creation of a choreography are therefore also within the Rosas company crucial links in its passing on. The importance of the direct transmission by instructors and even more so how this is done, means that the repertoire practice in contemporary dance partly resembles the tradition of folk dance (and, by extension, vocational learning). Similar to the passing on of popular dance forms, learning repertoire is a matter of demonstrating and imitating. The rehearsal director shows, the performer copies – but the mimesis only truly succeeds when the internalisation of the choreographic score becomes synonymous with its subjectification. The learner then appropriates the demonstrated movements in such a way that the mimesis shows something of the dancer’s individuality. This subjectification has won ground in Rosas with the restaging of existing choreographies. By working more often with new performers, who are not yet socialised in the Rosas universe, the likelihood of alterity indeed increases: the same movement score is interpreted slightly differently. That the subjectivity of the repertoire performer takes the shape of a regulated expressiveness is amplified further by the emphasis on structure in De Keersmaeker’s choreographic écriture. Those who have been keeping track of her work for a longer time therefore see different dance personae surfacing with each restaging: singular traces of an individuality that nestles itself in and is even spawned by the difference between the re-enacted choreographic structure and its personal embodiment. This subjectification partly escapes the performers since it is directly tied to their physicality, which in spite of all training and experience continues to resemble a half-closed book, a subconscious sphere that resists probing.
4. Beyond the focus on repertoire, De Keersmaeker’s general choreographic practice is characterised by a cautious, learning approach to her own past work. Movement material or phrases from a previous piece may, for instance, instigate a new creation process or even be literally copied. De Keersmaeker’s mode of working ignores the dominant logic of the new and instead opts for continuity, the further exploration of the possibilities in the already created. Not so much the urge for innovation, but the idea of craftsmanship, or step-by-step learning based on experience, is what drives her écriture. An existing choreography may therefore be rewritten. This is what happened for instance to A Love Supreme, which was choreographed to the well-known song by John Coltrane, and Verklärte Nacht. The original choreography from 1995 set to Arnold Schönberg’s eponymous string quartet was a group performance in the framework of a Schönberg evening at De Munt / La Monnaie. In 2014, De Keersmaeker reworked the piece into a duet. That, too, is repertoire, only in the broad sense: actualising one’s own choreographic through a renewal based on an artistic experience that has in the
meantime been refined. Zeitigung (2017) illustrates yet another possibility, one that is only rarely explored in contemporary dance. This choreography is a drastic adaptation of Zeitung (2008) for which De Keersmaeker collaborated with the young dance artist Louis Nam Le Van Ho and pianist Alain Franco. In addition to rewriting, the broader meaning of repertoire also includes reinscribing, or showing a previous choreography in a different context. This already happened with the three pieces that were brought together in 2006 for the first time under the heading ‘repertoire evening’, which is now restaged in a partly altered way. The choreography to Bela Bartóks Quator n°4 was created by De Keersmaeker in 1986 and made up the dance core of Bartok/Aantekeningen. It was given a place a year later in Mikrokosmos and subsequently in De Keersmaeker’s 1998 direction of Bartók’s opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle for De Munt / La Monnaie. Erts (1992) was the original context of the choreography to Die Grosse Füge, one of the string quartets by Ludwig von Beethoven, and was later included in Kinok (1994). And the already mentioned dance score to Verklärte Nacht was integrated into Woud, Three Movements to the Music of Berg, Schönberg, Wagner in 1996. The incorporation of an existing choreography into another context also alters its meaning: the process of reinscribing is an invitation for reinterpretation. It’s as with a quotation: the context in which it is cited highlights meanings that are hardly or only latently present in the source text. Bartók/Beethoven/Schönberg is an adapted retake from the 2006 repertoire evening and therefore underscores Rosas engaged way of dealing with its own past. The three choreographies are shown within one and the same scenography which, compared to the original sets, boils down to a reduced decor and a more homogeneous lighting. By minimising the scenic context, the attention to the interchange between choreography and score is maximised. In the update of the repertoire evening of 2006, the relationship between dance and music is given a greater focus, which is in keeping with the core of De Keersmaeker’s choreographic practice: ‘The music is my master’, she once stated in an interview. Whereas the more recent duet version of Verklärte Nacht is shown, Die Grosse Fuge has been rewritten for four dancers (the original choreography was created for eight performers). This makes Bartók/Beethoven/Schönberg a textbook example of repertoire in the broad sense. The performance presents older work, which had already been explicitly positioned as repertoire, partially in a different version that literally renews the Rosas memory: ‘that which was’ is not only performatively reinterpreted by the dancers but also choreographically rewritten by the dance maker. From a musical perspective, Bartók/Beethoven/Schönberg moves from the end of the eighteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century. Within De Keersmaeker’s choreographic career, it involves repertoire she created between 1985 and 1995. The three pieces represent three stages in the evolution of De Keersmaeker’s choregraphic writing: they document shifts in the relationship between the inspirational music and the ‘organisation of bodies in time and space’ (one of De Keersmaeker’s definitions of choreography). The choreography to Bartók’s fourth string quartet, in which middle European folk music resounds, grafts the explicitly structuralist écriture of Fase, Rosas danst Rosas and Elena’s Aria with its many unisons onto a score which at first sight doesn’t seem to match. In that sense it was a sort of test, an exploration of the possibilities that a meanwhile developed choreographic practice could offer when moving to an apparently impossible terrain. The choreography to Beethoven’s Die Grosse Füge meticulously follows the transformations of the two basic musical themes: choreography and score entertain a seemingly mirror relationship. As such, it created a first momentum of the kind of contrapuntal choreographing that to this day is one of the pillars of De Keersmaeker’s ‘dance writing’. Verklärte Nacht, by comparison, remains more of an outlier in De Keersmaeker’s trajectory. Schönberg’s music follows the story that Richard Dehmel unfolds in his eponymous poem: during a nocturnal conversation in the woods a woman confides to her new lover that she is pregnant of a man she didn’t love, after which the new partner forgives her and states that he will accept the child as theirs. This was the first narrative choreography in De Keersmaeker’s artistic journey; moreover, it was grafted onto a late-romantic score (Ottone Ottone from 1988 also has a narrative character, yet this performance stages in an unconventional way Monteverdi’s opera L’Incoronazione di Poppea). Bartók/Beethoven/Schönberg is not a Rosas showcase but rather an particular repertoire evening. The three presented pieces document an artistic past, but two of them also actualise that very same past through the choreographic rewriting of the
original ‘dance text’. All of this testifies of a more general ethical and political orientation, unspoken but all the more insistent. It can be captured in one simple expression: active sustainability, or the acceptance of the past as a source of diverse possibilities for renewal. It could very well be a definition of repertoire.