The past that comes to life in the present : Rosas takes back Bartok/Beethoven/Schönberg

Published on 17.06.2019, 12:00

Introduction: In Bartók / Beethoven / Schönberg, Rosas stages three repertoire pieces in an evening arrangement. The performance is branched throughout the oeuvre of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, propagating roots in the early years but also displaying the various transformations over the years. Dance is an art that is continuously changing but always exists in the now, something made clear by Bartók / Beethoven / Schönberg.

This retake of Bartók / Beethoven / Schönberg reflects Rosas’s focus on the repertoire. When this performance was first staged in 2006, it was already a retrospective of earlier work referred as ‘Repertory Evening’.

I wouldn’t call it a retrospective because that would effectively contradict the inherent contemporary nature of dance, with the embodiment of this choreography here and now on stage. However, it is true that these three pieces have previously been at the heart of other composite evenings. Quatuor no4 was derived from Bartók/Aantekeningen (1986) and Bartók/Mikrokosmos (1987), Die Grosse Fuge was originally part of Erts (1992) and then of Kinok (1994), and I wrote Verklärte Nacht for a Schönberg composite evening at De Munt / La Monnaie (Erwartung/Verklärte Nacht, 1995), after which it was included in Woud (1996). The decision to perform these pieces with live music set the stage for starting to use them separately and at some later point bringing them together again in the current form. Only that didn’t turn out to be the end of it, the choreographies continued to beg for new forms, inviting me to rewrite them. In 2014, Verklärte Nacht became a piece for three dancers instead of fourteen and for the upcoming retake in June, I will apply the same to Die Grosse Fuge: the original arrangement of eight dancers will be reduced to four. In the end, only Quatuor no4 has kept its original score. But as a whole, Bartók / Beethoven / Schönberg has a unique position, quite different from other repertoire pieces like Rosas danst Rosas or Rain.

What compelled you in 2006 to bring these three choreographies together? Did you find they had a complementarity or cohesion that made it the logical next step?

Well, Bartók and Beethoven composed a string quartet, and Schönberg originally wrote Verklärte Nacht for a sextet, although subsequently he did turn it into a work for string orchestra. Bartók’s fourth string quartet is entrenched in the popular Balkan folk music which gives it a strong dancing character. In its arched structure, with the slow middle part, it is very emotionally expressive music, in spite of the great dissonance. Then Beethoven’s Die Grosse Fuge, from my perspective almost the ultimate form of fugue writing because he managed to write such complex music with the ‘limited’ means of a string quartet. Verklärte Nacht you can take as a key moment in the oeuvre of Schönberg, one of his last pieces before coming up with dodecaphony. To some extent it is also programme music, based on a poem by Richard Dehmel. To me, it is one of the great compositions of the twentieth century, like Le Sacre du Printemps by Stravinsky. In short: the choice of music reaches from the early 19th century, across the turn of that century to the early 20th century. Bringing these three musical choices together and pitting them against each other seemed somehow pertinent.

How do the three parts of the evening come together from a choreographic point of view?

The performance does indeed also unite three different elements from my choreographic track, every time a different approach to a musical score that confronted me with very specific questions. After Fase, Rosas danst Rosas and Elena’s Aria, Quatuor no4 was the first time I accepted the challenge to write a very articulated, precise choreographic structure to contemporary music from the classical tradition. I had to find a choreographic answer to the way a string quartet gets the most out of a bare minimum. There is no room for excuses, no escape route to a broad orchestration. In a sense it was a continuation of Rosas danst Rosas, only in complete unison. That was a rather unusual statement considering the layered nature of the music but it was the best way to expose the dancing character of the music. The choreography to Die Grosse Fuge was the exact opposite, really. Every dancer’s part is grafted onto a specific line in the music so that the dance reflects the counterpoint in the music. Apart from the role of Cynthia Loemij, the only people dancing are men. In Verklärte Nacht I was working with musical themes and leitmotifs as well as with the question of how to transfer an underlying narrative to dance.

Productions like Fase and Rosas danst Rosas have – albeit intermittently – been staged continuously, but this 2006 performance was the first to aggregate and restage earlier work labelling it ‘repertoire’. Was this the point when you started reflecting on how to approach the history of your oeuvre?

In fact, I already started thinking about repertoire with the creation of Rosas danst Rosas, my second choreography. Because already then the question of how to deal with your previous creation becomes pertinent. It’s the point at which you start building a greater whole. The fact that you can’t keep performing pieces continuously, of course has a great deal to do with pragmatic, financial and organisational aspects. When Rosas took up residence at De Munt in 1992, however, it did become official. Our commission was threefold and encompassed working on creation, repertoire and education. Putting together a ‘repertory evening’ fitted that.

For this occasion, you have reworked Die Grosse Fuge into a smaller arrangement, you opted for a unified set with an empty stage, you simplified the lighting. Does this inclination towards minimalism sprout from the way you have been approaching new creations these last few years?

Yes, in a sense. But in the specific case of Die Grosse Fuge, I feel this minimalism to be a more suitable choreographic translation of the musical score.

It’s the first time this piece is danced by Rosas’s ‘repertoire group’. These young dancers have become acquainted with repertoire pieces like Achterland, Fase, Rosas danst Rosas … which, historically speaking, are close to the three choreographies in Bartók / Beethoven / Schoenberg. What do you believe will be the greatest surprise or challenge awaiting them during the rehearsal process?

For the dancers who have danced Fase, Rosas danst Rosas and Rain, the challenge in Quatuor n°4 is very specific. The choreography is articulated very precisely to the music, really at a microlevel, whereas that relationship in Rain isn’t as precisely ‘one-on-one’. Also, the energy in Quatuor n°4 is very condensed, whereas in Rosas danst Rosas the tension builds continuously for two hours. In other words, the choreography to Bartók’s fourth string quartet requires a flawless combination of speed and musical precision. In fact, the same is true for Die Grosse Fuge: it also has very accurate articulation to the music, even a step beyond Achterland, for instance. In Verklärte Nacht, a dancer must relate to an underlying narrative, which engages with the music in a more traditional manner. The protracted, persistent character of the music must be translated physically.

The choreographies in Bartók / Beethoven / Schoenberg have also been interpreted by other companies. The ballet of the Paris Opera has performed this entire programme twice, in 2015 and in 2018. Die Grosse Fuge was danced by the ballet of the Opéra de Lyon and of the National Opera of Lisbon. Do those experiences influence the way you now approach them? For instance, do you have more confidence in the process of retakes and transfers, or in the material in and of itself?

It does make me reflect a great deal on the relationship between the choreography and the interpreters, between the present and the past. The thing that intrigues me is the individual ‘now-power’ by which a dancer internalises the choreography and lends it a contemporaneity, despite the fact the dance has a high degree of abstraction. There is nothing more contemporary than the body that incorporates the dance in the here and now.

Do you find it a challenge to keep past and present balanced, to find a handle on the differences between them?

Mostly you challenge others, young dancers. It is up to them to take something that is outside themselves, the choreography, and literally incorporate it and make it their own. By doing that they also change it, the material undergoes a transformation. It is different with music. There is also a great degree of abstraction, but the score provides a coded language to pass on the work. This is not the case with dance and there is the added difficulty that a choreography doesn’t have that same objective formality. This means the transfer is more difficult, but also more artisanal and possibly more contemporary as well, because in the first stage, it takes place by displaying the material, demonstrating it, in other words bringing it to life in the here and now. The new dancer’s first task is therefore mimicry to learn the framework. But in addition, he or she must also have the capacity to change the material by appropriating it. The extent to which this is possible without changing the core differs from piece to piece and depends on the choreography itself: some choreographies allow little space for this, for others it is necessary.

The necessity to continue to perform a dance repertoire doesn’t only have to do with the lack of a unified, comprehensive and internationally established notation system. Generations of dancers follow each other in relatively quick succession and it is not always possible for them to dance the same role for decades.

I believe I can say that for the time being, Rosas stands out on that level. In larger ballet companies for instance, a dancer is obliged to give up his or her place to somebody from a younger generation once he or she has turned 40. I’m very happy that in The Six Brandenburg Concertos, dancers with an age difference of sometimes close to 30 years are dancing together. The fact that we have dancers work together not only for revisiting repertoire, but also for new creations, is really a kind of mission statement. I am a great proponent of the idea that different generations can learn from each other, in both directions, for that matter. Of course some repertoire pieces are grafted onto the body and energy pattern of young people to the extent that at some point it becomes physically impossible to continue performing it with the same cast. But that is not necessarily the case, and our practice must reflect dance as a shared experience between dancers with different backgrounds and experiences.

Floor Keersmaekers