Contemporary dance tends to see itself as independent from music. Yet Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker has achieved worldwide success with her concept of “harmonic polarity.” The Belgian choreographer, the European standard-bearer for minimal dance, bases her work on the musical score, using it as a starting point to explore possible relationships between sound and dance. Her approach is complex, but, perhaps paradoxically, results in a clarity of movement that is both of the postmodern dance movement and uniquely her own.I met De Keersmaeker at a venue in Heidelberg, Germany, where she is currently presenting her choreography “Mitten wir im Leben sind” (2017), to the Bach Cello Suites. We sat down in the darkened lobby, drinking bad tea in the light of a laptop monitor. I was impressed with the enormity of the challenge ahead of her: taking such a lifeless space and filling it with energy and motion.  

VAN: “It would be too modest to call Anne Teresa’s interest in music a relationship. It’s more like love: one demands something.” That quote is from Jean-Luc Plouvier, the pianist and artistic director of the Ictus Ensemble. Why did you end up studying dance and not music in the first place?

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker: In 1960s Belgium it was more common than not to go to a musical elementary school. I took recorder lessons. The musical level, particularly in Flanders, was rather high. So music was already there; I had to conquer dance myself. And yet it was always a part of me. It’s the most natural way for me to express myself—if expression can be considered the act of bringing out what’s inside you. And then, because dance and music have always been inseparable, it was inevitable that I’d go back to music.

So there was never any doubt in your mind?

If there was a decision I had to make, then between dance and theater, or between dance and healing or medicine. Music became my partner, but becoming a musician was never an option.

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker Photo © Hugo Glendinning 
Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker Photo © Hugo Glendinning 

Did you have encounters with music as a child that have stayed particularly fresh in your mind?

I’m not from a musical family. My father was a farmer and my mother was a teacher. Besides the radio, we had hardly any musical influences. I didn’t start diving into music until I had already begun dancing, and then when I later decided to become a choreographer. But I never thought of music as just the basic energetic impulse that makes you want to dance; it was always like a textbook, something worth studying. If you consider choreography to be an organization of movement in space and time, then it is very instructive to look at scores and understand how composers organize their material. Both are embodiments of the same idea—music does it in a more abstract way and choreography is more concrete.

Before you went to New York to study contemporary dance at Tisch, you were an apprentice at Maurice Béjart’s Mudra School. Was that where you started studying scores?

One obvious difference between contemporary musicians and dancers is that the musicians are expected to know historical practice as a matter of course. Even if you play mostly new music, you have to know Bach and Beethoven, too. The historical knowledge is part of the education, and music history is general knowledge. I’m sure that’s connected to the availability of the musical score, as well; there’s nothing comparable in dance.

My first important teacher at the Mudra School was Fernand Schirren. He taught rhythm, but he was also a philosopher. He was the first person to show me how everything fit together: music and dance, dance and visual art, art and daily life. Later I was very lucky to be surrounded by such talented musicians—especially those who spend their time doing new music.

The Ictus Ensemble has been an important presence in your career. You, the choreographer Wim Vandekeybus, and the Flemish minimal band Maximalist! were touring, and then the group wanted to expand for a project…

Not quite, the music for my choreography “Rosas danst Rosas” was by Thierry De Mey, Peter Vermeersch and two other musicians. They were already going by the name Maximalist!.

De Keersmaeker’s “Work/Travail/Arbeid” at Weils, May 2015 Photo © Anne van Aerschot
De Keersmaeker’s “Work/Travail/Arbeid” at Weils, May 2015 Photo © Anne van Aerschot

That was the tour with Vandekeybus?

That’s right. The group was expanded for Vandekeybus. And then I commissioned the music for my piece “Amor constante,” and Ictus grew out of Maximalist!.

The relationship has only gotten closer. Ictus works with your dance company Rosas and P.A.R.T.S., which you founded and offers training to young contemporary dancers. Together you’ve realized countless projects over the years. Jean-Luc Plouvier told me that your work with Maximalist! was decisive—particularly in the context of the 1980s “Flemish Wave,” with music that was rawer and more brutal than the Californian version. Louis Andriessen, Stravinsky, and punk were important influences for Plouvier. How about you?

At the point when Thierry De Mey was writing the music for “Rosas danst Rosas,” Louis Andriessen’s “Hoketus” was certainly an important influence. It’s a very repetitive piece, influenced by techniques from the late Middle Ages. But Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass were also very present. It was the era of “Einstein on the Beach,” and “Drumming” had already been written, too. Another influence was Olivier Messiaen’s “Quatuor pour la fin du temps,” and Beethoven’s last String Quartet—anything with a quick pulse and lots of repetition, elements that were also very present in the pop music of the 1980s. It was the days of the Sex Pistols, Simple Minds, Joy Division, Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft, Einstürzende Neubauten, Nina Hagen’s “Unbeschreiblich Weiblich.” It was helpful that Thierry De Mey helped me understand the pop and punk scenes on the one hand, but also that he had been involved in film as well. He introduced me to Rainer Fassbinder.

It was a special time. I felt like there was no separation between the past, the present, and the future, like there were no gated communities of people who only went to concerts or exhibitions…we were all influencing one another, all the time!

So something like New York in the ‘60s and ‘70s?

Yes, maybe it was comparable. One more thing I’d like to add about the time of the Flemish Wave: minimalism is often thought of as having a lot to do with distance, with a kind of extremely structured approach and the influence of Buddism, in the American West Coast tradition. Structure dissolves the ego. There’s no building up of tension, no catharsis, nothing orgiastic…and in comparison, Andriessen, De Mey, Maximalist! and, later on, Ictus, were certainly more physically passionate, more brutal. They represented something similar to what Georges Bataille once called dépense: the full application of energy, without regard to its strategic conservation. Giving not 100 percent, but 400 percent—all at your own risk, with the potential to do real damage to yourself.

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Composers of contemporary music and postmodern choreographers have had a way of pairing off: Philip Glass and Lucinda Childs, Trisha Brown and Laurie Anderson, and John Cage and Merce Cunningham, who were also lovers. You’re particularly well-known for your Steve Reich choreographies, which you’ve done to pieces like “Violin Phase,” “Drumming,” “Music for 18 Musicians,” “Eight Lines,” and “Four Organs.” What is your fascination with Reich?

The most simple reason is the way his music invites you to dance with its pulse and developing processes. At the beginning of my career, especially, the process-oriented nature of the musical material helped me find my own language, step by step.

The collaboration between Cage and Cunningham showed how dance and music could develop separately from one another. In contemporary dance, this is often seen as the emancipation of dance from music. It’s now considered old-fashioned to develop a dance directly from the musical score. But that’s how you work. Does that take guts?

I like the idea that you can sing ideas that you can’t say, and that you can dance things you can’t sing. What I don’t like is the connotation of a power relationship when you say you’re “emancipating dance from music.” That would mean that there’s a hierarchy, that one art form is the master of the other. I rather believe in a harmonic polarity, where one art can stimulate the other, but they belong together. The question of separation is one that people never even asked for thousands of years…my attitude is, I want to ask questions about the many possible relationships between dance and music. The autonomy of Cage/Cunningham is one option. But there are so many more. All the pieces of music I’ve danced to—from Ars Subtilior to Brian Eno—each one requires its own strategy.

In your choreography to Grisey’s “Vortex Temporum,” the dancers are assigned to specific instruments.

Yes, there’s a close relationship there, and the dancers develop their own vocabulary out of it. It’s based on the score as well as the physical gestures the musicians make while playing.

Learning the choreography for “Vortex Temporum” Photo © Anne van Aerschot 
Learning the choreography for “Vortex Temporum” Photo © Anne van Aerschot 

Do you see that as a postmodern idea in your choreography: to reproduce a functional gesture, on purpose?

It was an attempt to achieve concreteness. Grisey’s divisions of noise, sound, and pitch involve questions about musique concrète, the physicality of a bow on a string—then there’s the connection to the work of Helmut Lachenmann. But that’s all theoretical. There are also other physicalities in the choreography: the spine of course, the spirals that open and close, the repetition, the almost ritualistic character, but then the extremely transparent structure.

I’d suggest that there are two ways through classical music history: the way of the process, from Ars Subtilior, Reich, Grisey and Ligeti; and the way of the harmonic system, Bach, Schoenberg, Webern’s harmonic cells and Grisey’s spectral analyses of individual notes.

I have to admit, to my great embarrassment, that my interest in harmonic structures only goes back a couple years. My choreographies for “Così fan tutte” and Bach’s Cello Suites were the first to express that interest. And now I’m fascinated by this formal aspect—the transparency and the complexity of it.

In your Bach Cello Suites choreography, “Mitten wir im Leben sind,” I was struck by your focus on the characteristics of the individual dances. In the Fifth Suite in C Minor, the darkest tonality of all the Suites, I perceived a kind of dimming of the light and an extreme reserve in the choreography.

Yes, the Fifth Suite, the Sarabande in particular, is nearly Webern-esque. The pulse and harmony are skeletal. We are taken to a place of existential emptiness. In all the Suites, I work with the quality of the tones by flexing the spine—with minor chords we go behind and down, major chords we embody with rising, upward energy. The circle of fifths, however, isn’t integrated as a system in the choreography. At most it’s implied in the relationship between the horizontal and the vertical.

You’re known to look for the golden ratio in things. Did you find it in “Vortex Temporum”?

Positive and negative golden ratios are always a criterium for me when I approach a piece of music. The structure of “Vortex Temporum” is based on the Fibonacci sequence, which itself already contains the logic of golden ratios.

What’s next for you after Grisey? Jean-Luc Plouvier joked with me that you’ve already begun searching for the great symphony of the 21st century.

Mon dieu! As you know, I’ve started working on Bach’s “Brandenburg Concertos,” which is a gigantic challenge.

Bach wrote the works in a situation that we might—despite the death of his first wife—describe as the happiest years of his life. He was in Köthen, Prince Leopold was supporting him, he had a great orchestra with very talented musicians. We think of Bach as a composer of religious music, but the “Brandenburg Concertos” are secular music, and at the same time a celebration of the cosmic order.

What from the 21st century will you bring to the pieces?

The bodies. ¶

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