'Leave-taking, Homecoming'

Published on 25.02.2021, 12:07

On Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Goldberg Variations
Bojana Cvejić


And no one knows.

Friedrich Hölderlin
(“Heimath”, third version)


A young man and a woman with white hair walk into a dark, bare space. While the man takes a seat at the piano, placing his naked feet on its pedals, the woman begins her dance in silence. Her movements slice the air in five different directions revolving around her axis. Determined by a quiet force, yet gentle and graceful, she appears driven by her dance rather than steering it. The darkness is dotted by the shimmering reflections of a crumpled silver screen on her silvery ponytail. As the first tones of the aria from the Goldberg Variations seep into the room, my ears and eyes begin to attune themselves to a fine and delicate sensory apparatus. Glenn Gould was right when he proclaimed that, in attending an interpretation of a canonical work, the audience must be surprised “to the extent that from the first note they are aware that something different is going to happen”. Against my expectations rooted in Gould’s famous take on Bach’s late keyboard masterpiece, but also in my familiarity with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s work, I begin a journey of minute and intimate discoveries in a performance. The performance is the solo danced by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker to the Goldberg Variations BWV 988 played live by Pavel Kolesnikov and Alain Franco in alternation.

It is not surprising for De Keersmaeker to choose this music to dance to, for this would be her sixth encounter with Bach, after the more recent choreographies to Bach’s Partita for Violin (Partita 2 with Boris Charmatz, 2012), Cello Suites (Mitten, 2017) and The Six Brandenburg Concertos (2018). What is unwonted is her choice to create a solo. “I love to dance, it is my way of being in the world,” says the choreographer, whose oeuvre features a great many large-scale choreographies. A solo in one of the largest bodies of work by a living choreographer – after Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, and William Forsythe – means an opportunity to pause for a moment and reflect. To exhibit craftsmanship or peer into a new territory? An occasion to look back, but also to look forward, ahead of oneself. If dancing is how you are in this world, and dance is what you have cherished for more than forty years, what must you do now? What would you like to keep and what will you let go? What will you search for and experiment with? If your work has been to observe dancers and make them sparkle in their utmost artistry, which qualities will you attend to in your own dancing? These were the questions that came to mind when De Keersmaeker told me about her wish to create a solo for her forthcoming 60th birthday. Few in number, yet significant in the output as a whole, De Keersmaeker’s solos punctuate her oeuvre with sharp questions and feisty statements – from Violin Phase (1982) urged by a decision to teach herself how to choreograph, through Once (2002), which unveiled politically her performative persona, to Keeping Still (2007), which looked at the capacity of natural light vs darkness, stillness vs movement as well as posing questions regarding the Earth’s survival. Having relinquished her first solo (Violin Phase) to the youngest generation of dancers, she will gift herself, and us, with a new piece.

Although dancing to Goldberg Variations might at first signal an affinity for mastery and classicism, there are more specific reasons to consider De Keersmaeker’s compositional principles, which are congenial to Bach’s music, and particularly, to this piece that crowns Bach’s writing for harpsichord in his late period. A penchant for methodically exploring a set of problems yields a complex but compelling composition – something that De Keersmaeker has looked up to in all her musical partners. The aria and thirty variations are grouped circularly, in a repeating pattern of three pieces: a canon, exhibiting the strict counterpoint that formally nods to the more austere and old-style Baroque; a ‘character’ piece in which Bach explores the expression of the upcoming Empfindsamer Stil of the 1740s (‘sensitive style’); and a virtuoso (‘concerto’) type in which the keyboard player – in this instance a pianist – can display extravagant brilliance. Bach provides an encyclopaedic view of the musical world in which he lived, in his old age, in this Clavier Ubung / bestehend / in einer ARIA / mit verschiedenen Verænderungen / vors Clavicimbal / mit 2 Manualen. Hence, he retrospectively glances at the baroque dance rhythms, like gigues, passepieds, sarabandes and minuets, which he dexterously combines with the contrapuntal techniques of imitation. But he also leaps ahead into the future, with the style galant in which his older sons were composing, and ventures into a bold chromaticism of a poignant adagio (Variation 25) that in the hands of Alain Franco begins to sound like Mozart. We will return to it later.

All these compositional fireworks are made possible by Bach’s splendid architectonics, the craft that De Keersmaeker is at home with. Looking through a pair of thick-lensed glasses, we would start counting: 32 bars of Aria for 32 pieces (for 30 variations and aria at the beginning and at the end, da capo); progressive increase of intervals for canons (from unisono to the tenth, a decima), placing canons in the order of numbers divisible by three; symmetrically dividing 30 variations in two parts by mutating G-major to G-minor in Variation 15. Musicologists have spilled a considerable amount of ink counting various numbers that unravel secret numerological correspondences in Bach. Yet Bach strikes back with a mundane humour that undoes the serious character of a constructed unity: in Variation 30, marked as quodlibet (‘whatever’), he weaves two German folk songs with the following refrains: “I have for so long a time been away from you” and “Cabbage and beets have driven me away; had my mother cooked meat I might have longer stayed”. His contemporaries would probably have hummed these melodies, so famous were they. What remains of the historical joke is a witty allusion, a self-ironical comment about the variations that, in character, drifted too far from the aria, and now we must return home to reprising the aria da capo.

With De Keersmaeker, numbers comply with the laws of sacred geometry: five external points of initiating movement (two hands, two legs, and the head) plus three visceral centres (heart-kidney, gaze and pelvis); a pentagram on the floor and a dodecahedron (the volume organized in twelve pentagonal faces). Secret inscriptions hint at another analogy between De Keersmaeker’s and Bach’s poetics. Bach has been cast as one of the last figures in the history of German culture in whom there is not dichotomy between the artist and the intellectual. As the filmmaker Jean-Marie Straub put it when he and Danièle Huillet made their film portrait of Bach, “there is not in him the slightest separation between intelligence, art, and life; nor is there a conflict between sacred and secular music; in Bach, everything exists on the same plane”. There is something of a one-world perspective in De Keersmaeker, too. The body’s biology mirrors the spatial geometry, music and light move in concert, patterns and principles organize not only the parameters of a choreography, but must also guide how one lives and dances, architecture and macrobiotics.

Knowing De Keersmaeker as one of the rare choreographers for whom music is still the ‘floor’ upon which to dance, we might ask how she approaches Bach’s score in this solo. And this is where the first series of novel divergences from her previous works begins. Goldberg Variations applies the method of composition by variation whereby the utmost diversity is derived from a single pattern. This pattern is merely the bass line and not the melody of the aria as we would expect from a theme, which makes the aria as theme equal to the subsequent variations. Thus, each variation, including the aria, expresses the same universe from its point of view: either a canon or an expressive baroque piece or an adroit concerto etude. Each variation is coordinated with all the others, yet is complete in itself and independent, just like Leibniz’s ‘monad’. Monads, those metaphysical units of being, are a great many individuals, each having a sufficient reason to be, and compossible with all others being part of a pre-established harmony. Each variation (aria included) is conceived like a monad, a self-contained expression of the same world, the same harmonic bass line. We can continue the analogy with the metaphysics of Leibniz, who was Bach’s contemporary and published his Monadology a few decades before Goldberg, by contending that the bass line of chords harmonizes each piece with the others. Our analogy stops with the composition by variation as we cannot take it further and cannot agree with Leibniz’s ultimate principle of universal harmony that our world is the best of all possible worlds. Such an ideal is reserved for art, in which a harmonious entity can only be dreamed and projected. De Keersmaeker does not seek that ideal here. In fact, here, the perfect marriage between dance and music is disrupted several times by silences, as well as by de-synchronized beginnings and endings (dance continues where the music stops). The first thing we notice is that the dance does not structure itself around the music’s cyclical triplets. Indeed, her dance listens and reacts to the music differently from, say, Steve Paxton’s improvisation to the Goldberg. While Paxton always sought a different response to each variation, matching its character – such as he heard it - with another characteristic figure, spatial manoeuvre or rhythm, De Keersmaeker is curiously independent of the music’s microstructure.

The wide repertory of relations between music and dance that De Keersmaeker has developed over the past few decades is set aside. Most famously, she is taking leave of the principle of equating a voice or instrumental part with a dancer, which ultimately leads to “mickey-mousing”, i.e. transposing rhythms or textures from music to movements. Even more importantly, there is no basic phrase to correspond to the harmonic bass line of the aria, which served as the main compositional principle and source of material in many previous Rosas pieces. What remains instead of the basic phrase is a nucleus, a seed comprised of bodily orientations that lay out geometrical contours between the body and the space, and directions drawn between, on the one hand, arms, legs, head, the solar plexus and the pelvic region and, on the other, stars and volumes in the space. The seed is not systematically exploited from one variation to another. Nor is it inscribed in the ground as a floor plan from which all dancing should radiate. Instead, it floats like a leitmotif, an untethered structural pattern that can appear as readily as it can vanish into thin air.

Another peculiar divergence from De Keersmaeker’s familiar devices is the departure from strict counterpoint. One body cannot convey canons in two, three or four voices, so that is not the purpose of this solo. The layering is happening elsewhere and otherwise – between various dances from De Keersmaeker’s past, narratives of gestures alternating with more formal, geometrically rooted dancing. The impression is that of being in a stream-of-consciousness novel, Virginia Woolf’s Waves, say, or Leopold Bloom’s day in Ulysses. Parallel thoughts and voices, recollecting times past and places once visited, loom in a semi-opaque, yet distinct way. The whole first part (until Variation 15) is interspersed with reminiscences of the iconic movements and postures that characterized Fase. For example, spinning with one leg raised and extended appears as a matter of fact along the way, as if it had broken out of her body memory. Stamping the floor in a jump is yet one more reminiscence of the movement associated with the image of the standing street fiddler in Violin Phase. The same occurs in recumbent positions, although I am no longer certain if I recognized or imagined the tossing and turning of sleep at the outset of Rosas danst Rosas. Or, in Variation 7, alla giga, played by both pianists in a slower-than-usual tempo, the siciliano-dotted rhythm evokes the jolly leaps of the Rosas quartet to Bartók’s music, the famous “kataklop”, the onomatopoeic name for the legs clasping in air.

In Variation 11, an abundance of memories is played out with new gestures that acquire a signature status. It begins with a very brief and vigorous kick into mid-air (recalling the magnificent opening phrase of Drumming, which will be fully explored in Variation 16), but soon enough a different character spills out of her body, a Chaplinesque wiggling walk (or is it a reminiscence of various ways of walking from The Golden Hours, 2015 or Brandenburg Concertos, 2018?). A little later, in silence, she is biting her forearm and then offering the palms of her hands, as in the closing scene of Elena’s Aria when the five women perform a dance of hands facing the audience. This suddenly brings to mind the mood of that early work, which played out mainly on chairs and in silence, young women sitting defiantly motionless, in response to the question: how do you dance when you don’t feel like moving from your chair? The course of this variation is interrupted when De Keersmaeker approaches the piano. As if she is infringing upon the territory of the music, the pianist halts and abruptly jumps off his chair. The caesura is all the more dramatic as he stands there motionless, watching her continue to dance, and what comes to the fore is a peculiar gesture of scything, one of at least four signature moves that recur in the piece. She looks as if she is holding a scythe while rotating on the spot. The movement resembles that of mowing grass or of reaping crops in a circular motion. Recurring many times in the course of the piece, the gesture becomes conspicuous. In Christian cultures, death carries a scythe, the Grim Reaper who comes to harvest the dead. What is this gesture meditating upon here? Does it mark the moment when death might be approaching and it is time to take stock of one’s life, or one’s dance? Sometimes, she adds a slight attack to the cutting movement, which brings to mind the martial scythe as an ancient symbol of authority. In her early works, De Keersmaeker was known for the attack of her dancing; this was her idiosyncrasy among the four Rosas girls. But now the scythe cuts deeper, and with a more sober grip.

Three more gestures gain signature status. An arresting posture, with head and limbs spread out like Leonardo’s ‘Vitruvian Man’ – is it out of love for bodily proportions? The fingers forming a rectangle, a frame through which to gaze at the audience, its meaning is ambiguous. Is it a rectangle in the same proportions as the golden ratio? Or those of a credit card, as De Keersmaeker told me with a wink? Either way, it is an important element of the production! And then the gesture she smuggles in so often: breathing into the palm of her hand and watching that breath fly away. This gesture recalls “my breathing is my dancing”, the motto of another solo (2015) to flute music by Salvatore Sciarrino. Breath is present all the way through, like the vocal shadow of Glenn Gould humming while playing Bach. In De Keersmaeker’s utterance, it is the metonym for life energy (Qi), an acoustic trace of the body in contraction and release, and a vestige of feminine seduction. However, the signatures of scythe, Vitruvian Man, rectangle and breath pass swiftly and in half-light, just enough for us to note their prominence but not enough to reveal a story. 

Mentioning all these gestures and recollections gives the impression that the more we read of the history of Rosas, the richer our appreciation of De Keersmaeker’s solo. The opposite is true, too. Iconic gestures, crystals of dance forms, and sweeping strides that shape the architecture of the space into stars, spirals and circles – bear an abundance of performative states and dancing qualities, of faces and bodies of dance for eyes and ears to enjoy. This abundance comes with a sense of abandon, of giving up the total grip of the structure. Instead of consolidating a territory staked out by methodically elaborated possibilities, De Keersmaeker’s dance opens up a space, and the room breathes with contrasting expressions. One moment, she might be dancing in an abstract and earnest way, while the next she breaks into a glitzy disco routine with a nod to John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Out of pristine arm lines she can creep into a glitch, for example, gesturing gangster-style, or wiggling sneakily in the style of musicals or staggering about like an old woman, Baba Yaga-like. She can also come to a stop and stand still, waiting. The spectrum of one’s dance must include self-irony as well as the potential not to dance. The latter happens in Variation Nine when she sits off to the side, leaning against the wall under the glimmering reflections of the silver plate. Dance is suspended and the body is delivered to stillness. Is it tired? Contemplative? Observing the space in the afterlife of her previous dance? Looking heavenward? Or, as in the final quodlibet (Variation 30), De Keersmaeker freezes, standing with her naked back to us, having cast off her shirt– hesitating through barely perceptible movements. The image of standing still, looking into the depth of the stage with her back turned to the audience is a recurring one in the solo. As if she is about to take off somewhere while still at home. Is it possible to take one’s leave and still come home at the same time? In these moments of stillness and these poses, in the caesuras when the music stops and the dance continues in silence, home becomes this place of the unknown. This performance is caught between two poles: the homecoming, revisiting the previous dances and the leave-taking, where the traversed body once again becomes light and unknowing.

Until now, I have described this solo mainly as an individual endeavour. Here, as in other Rosas pieces, there are a few significant others, in the limelight or in the shadows. Bach was the first to be recognized as De Keersmaeker’s “intercesseur”, a figure that mediates and intervenes on her behalf. His music is mediated in a veritable concert, which endows De Keersmaeker’s solo with an extra dimension. On most evenings, we will be listening to Pavel Kolesnikov, a young pianist from Russia. Kolesnikov’s pianism stems from a remarkable tone, une touche that harbours the influences of the Romantic virtuoso repertoire, early French baroque and sound recording experiments. This generates exceptionally vigorous yet soft-toned, subdued virtuosity, vibrant textures in a fluid jeu perlé. Often when you expect him to accelerate or play louder, he takes the opposite route towards more sostenuto, sotto voce, more pianissimo, which is often astonishing and exquisite. Applying the pedals in a rather slow tempo in Variation Six creates nostalgic overtones of lagging harmonies, as if they mustn’t go. I imagined eavesdropping through a door left ajar, my ear funnelling sounds from a pianist playing next door. By contrast, Alain Franco’s approach is less intimist and more rowdily rock ’n’ roll. It often sports somewhat eccentric perspectives on the Goldberg, especially in the cantilena of Variation 25, where his lyrical attention for each tone made me doubt whether the composer was Bach or Mozart. The nonchalance with which he delivers all the sixteenth notes in the last variations (27-29) reveal a musical wit unburdened by pianistic virtuosity.

Kolesnikov’s fluidity and Franco’s nonchalance both resonate with De Keersmaeker’s dancing. Something striking is happening there: the choreographer who is known for her structuralist approach now appears as if she is improvising. The truth is that most of her solo was born through improvisation. In that venture, De Keersmaeker was accompanied with the deftest possible partner-in-dance, Diane Madden, the outstanding dancer in the works of Trisha Brown, whom she also assisted in many creations. Madden was De Keersmaeker’s intercesseur who helped her choose movements and emboldened her to improvise and search for lightness and splendour. The result is a dance in which every moment is sharp, meticulously composed, yet performed crisply, as if it were found here and now. The sense of whimsical play is never gratuitous. 

Last but not least, costumes and light contribute to the overall dramaturgy. In collaboration with De Keersmaeker, Minna Tiikkainen designed a compelling journey from a cold silver atmosphere to the warm gold and then red afternoon light. Among several moments marked by more abrupt changes of light – for example, the golden pipe rolling downstage and upstage between the end of the first and beginning of the second part, or redirecting the light to the audience at the golden section of the piece around Variation 21 – the high-point is reserved for Variation 25. There, the floating light in the shape of a trapezoid arrives at the pianist, leaving the dancer and the whole space in darkness. And then it glides onto something golden next to the piano, an emergency blanket crumpled on the floor. After that, the stage is moonlit with a touch of orangey red, chiming with the fiery colour of De Keersmaeker’s shirt. The fire must burn until the very end: the darkness.