The amount of energy invested in Drumming since it was first made; the number of theaters it has visited and audience members who have experienced it; the many dancers who have undertaken it with all the rigor, energy, and virtuosity it requires; its reputation in the dance world as the masterpiece that it is; its importance in the oeuvre of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Rosas—all of this makes it difficult to trace a line through Drumming in just a few pages. However, I will try to capture a sense of this piece and point out some of the details that underlie its singularity.
Drumming first premiered August 7, 1998, in Vienna as part of the ImPulsTanz festival. It involved twelve dancers and was created in a short span of time with a large part of the material coming from a previous creation, Just Before (1997). The costumes were designed by Dries Van Noten and the lighting and scenography by Jan Versweyveld. The music is, of course, Drumming (1971) by Steve Reich.
In De Keersmaeker’s repertoire, Drumming has come to hold a particular and significant position. As a choreographer of Western postmodern heritage and of the formalistic persuasion, this piece can be seen as the synthesis of her tools, techniques, tendencies, practices, and aesthetics. Drumming has become arguably the most highly developed study of formalist choreographic principles in existence, and with that, a masterpiece of geometry in dance, dance in geometry.
Since the beginning of her career geometry and the relationship or functions that it can develop with, upon and through the dancing body has been a central focus for De Keersmaeker. Choreography, here understood as the organisation of movement through time and space, is all about form and with that focus on form comes her invitation to the world of geometry.
To pull this piece apart through analysis is to study dance composition to a degree and quality of richness perhaps unsurpassable. Entering into that analysis is impossible in this text, but it is possible to break the work down with just enough generosity to provide you with some extra food for thought. To do so, I will focus on the key sections of the choreographic structure.
Part 1a) Exposition of the Phrase
In Drumming the focus lies almost entirely on movement—the form of movement, the potential of movement. “This is about the flow of movement,” says De Keersmaeker. It is built on one long base phrase that De Keersmaeker created and subsequently used as a unified vocabulary for the cast of dancers.
Since the beginning of her career, geometry and its relationship with, upon, and through the dancing body has been a central focus for De Keersmaeker. A signature feature in her oeuvre is the use of geometric patterns upon the floor, as if dancing not with a map to guide, but upon the map itself. In the case of Drumming, the Fibonacci sequence marks the floor in squares of exponential growth. These squares, 2D under the dancers’ feet, become 3D as they are brought to life with movements that mark the edges, puncture the walls, squeeze into the corners, jump over the lines, reach beyond the height of the cube. The cutting of sharp edges with forms of electric precision is juxtaposed with curvaceous movements that draw attention not only to the curves that exist within a square but to the larger form of the Fibonacci spiral.
All twelve dancers have their own “homes”: the central square of the Fibonacci sequence. With each home expanding into a spiral, every dancer has an individual trajectory to follow. This means that the space is not just a single 3D map, but twelve such maps, superimposed. As the base phrase is introduced into the space, the dancers gradually leave their homes—flying into their spiraling trajectories, encountering one another along the way, gaining energy while giving it too. Soon, the space becomes a complex highway of passing lanes, fast and slow lanes, intersections, roundabouts, bridges. An immense traffic of people finding their way. Although a seemingly exhaustive volume of lines intersect and separate, bend and twist, the dancers are never lost on this highway. They
always know how to return home to their anchor points, no matter whom they meet or what new energies they encounter.
But before any of this can happen, there must be accumulation. A bit like winding up a spring in order to release it, let it fly, a solo woman opens the evening by dancing the base phrase in retrograde. She moves backward to then move forward, and as she does so she will gather all the energy needed to launch her fellow dancers into the space with her.
Part 1b) Patterns
Once the base phrase has been exposed, the work of unraveling what has been laid out begins. As if taking a machine apart in order to piece it back together, this next section dives into compositional mechanisms, including “phase shifting,” “canon,” “looping,” and “manipulations” (to name a few) and a return to retrograde, the tool employed at the very beginning. The dancers get their hands dirty, entering into a full exploration of choreographic principles.
Just as a painter may learn to work with light, shade, and various brushstrokes, or a mechanic develops skills that require both heavy labor and attention to the minutest of details, tuning and refining in order for things to run smoothly, Drumming was the moment in which De Keersmaeker gathered the tools she had acquired, polished them up, and then gathered more, leading her into the next phase of her career. If you like (or as the eager dance student may willingly do), you may view this piece as a kind of painter’s atelier or mechanic’s garage—the place where the skills of the craft are intensely at work. If you prefer instead to be swept away instead, please feel free to do so. Just remember that nothing here is random. An intense sense of caring for craft, for what it is to be a part of a community of dancing bodies sharing time and space, and for the meticulous choreographic writing of this piece, is as present as the sound of the drumming.
Part 1c) Phase Shifting
The next section is based on the idea of "loops". Developing on from Fase (1982) and
the musical techniques of Steve Reich himself, the dancers zoom in on specific movements by looping them over and over. This is the "video-scratch" method, in which a dancer goes back and forth within the same loops, just as a faulty videotape would do. If one were to put this technique into words, it would look like this:
Forward and back. Repetition. noititepeR .kcab dna drawroF Forward and back. Repetition. noititepeR .kcab dna drawroF Forward and back. Repetition. noititepeR .kcab dna drawroF
By gradually changing the speed of these loops, the dancers are able to create "phase shifts". It could be said that phase shifting as a choreographic tool holds characteristics similar to the process through which a new generation of dancers have brought Drumming to the stage. Working with dance repertoire, a type of artifact that is often dependent on liveness, requires a sense of respect for what came before. Who the original cast members were, how their personalities shaped the movements that were originally theirs, cannot be ignored by each new cast of dancers. Yet here we also see a team of young people, twenty-two years since the piece was first made, adding their own voices into the choreography. This is not to speak over what has already been said, nor to mimic what has already been done, but to keep giving life to the artwork. It is a constant looking back or referral to the past, and learning through the example of previous editions of Drumming, in order to move forward with something new—a different perspective.
Many of you may be familiar with this piece. You may even have seen it before. You may find that you are watching yourself watching it, bringing to bear memories of the Drumming that you knew. Placed in a different position to the stage, frontality takes a back seat, and an alternative perspective comes to the fore. The spiral, such an integral part of the piece, is considered for what it truly is—frontless, visible from all angles. You are closer to the heart of it.
Part 2) Nagoya Marimbas I and II
This section is named for the instruments it involves, so this will be the moment for the music.
The music of Steve Reich has been a part of De Keersmaeker’s choreographic work since the very beginning, with Fase. In the case of Drumming you see a work in which the music covers the span of the choreography, which was in fact De Keersmaeker’s original concept. She was looking for a full-length piece of contemporary music that could become a full-length choreography, and as she herself says, it was only by 1998 that she felt ready to take on this momentous piece by Reich.
Structural tools are what expand the minimal vocabulary of Reich’s Drumming, exhausting all its possibilities with abundant energy and nonstop, driving rhythms. This piece, inspired by West African drumming and gamelan music, fills the theater with such a sense of vitality that from the very first beat it demands to be positioned within the dancers’ bodies, fueling them through the evening. The choreography, although parallel to this music in the sense of expanding a vocabulary to its maximum, is not dependent. Rather, in a place of counterpoint it lives its own life, running alongside but also through the multilayered rhythmical structure. The gradual increasing and decreasing of the density of sound, the pulse, the repetition—this is the invitation to dance.
And the invitation to dance is the gathering of people—different backgrounds, cultures, and sounds all moving to the same percussive pulse.
Part 3a) The Golden Section
The golden section is everywhere: on the floor, in the music, in the rhythm, in the number of dancers, in the entrance of dancers, in the structure of the piece.
Part 3b) The Slow Phrase
The twelve dancers—rushing around the space, swarming, scattering, resting for a moment, changing direction—sometimes seem to be a much larger crowd. This crowd has no limit, and you, in the audience, are drawn in from the edges. It seems like the crowd will never be still or orderly—as if as soon as one tiny movement is made, the
entire constellation shifts. Always unstable, always with momentum. And then comes the slow phrase. This is the moment of breath. Time suspends, and bodies with it. In times of acceleration there is an urgent need to slow down and return to the body.
When Drumming was created in 1998, it was not intended to be a piece with any specific political agenda. It was a creation of dance—the form of dance, the composition of dance, the joy of dance. These days, however, De Keersmaeker talks about dance as “embodied abstraction” and wonders about its capacity as a political agent. It could be argued that a dancing body embraces a world of abstraction, but that dancing bodies have the capacity for collective adaptation and negotiation. Perhaps this is a type of political thinking that could be of use beyond the stage. It is possible to read into a piece like Drumming in this manner, and it’s remarkable that a work whose fundamental intention is “pure” movement can allow such a reading.
Part 4) Finale
How do we organize the space between people?
In Drumming, the space between is not understood as empty. It is a space for activity to occur, as vibrant as the color orange. It is in the in-between that everything is brought together, not in synchronicity but in polyphony. It is in the in-between that the potential of movement manifests in all its vitality: celebration, defiance, organization, and support for one another.