For Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker as one of the few distinguished choreographers who delights in intricacies of contemporary music, Vortex Temporum has been the piece around which her attention gravitated in the last decade. Rigorously constructed and refined in timbre, this mature work of the French composer Gérard Grisey offers, on the one hand, spectral harmony based on natural acoustic properties of sound, and on the other, a high sense of motility in circles and spirals – patterns in which performances of Rosas abound. Dancers of Rosas and musicians of Ictus pair up in a shared quest for composing various experiences of time. De Keersmaeker will search for how time contracts and expands, swirls and foliates in a choreographic counterpoint of sound, musicians’ gestures, and dancers’ movements and spatial dynamics.
The wish to create a choreography to Vortex Temporum (1994-1996) predates the project you embarked on last September. Is it, like in the case of Ars subtilior, another “rendez-vous retardé” – this time with one of the key compositions of spectral music, the rigorously constructed and refined mature work of the late French composer Gérard Grisey? How did it come about?
My answer risks to become “standard.” The interest to choreograph to Vortex I owe to my “musical dealer.” While working on Zeitung (2006), Thierry De Mey recommended me a concert in which Ictus was going to play, what he called, one of the seminal pieces of contemporary music created in the last forty years. This was the first time I heard Vortex Temporum in live concert.
You are among few choreographers who find it important to consider and explore dance in relation to classical and contemporary music. Is it a matter of a mission you dedicate your choreographic work to? A kind of faith in the fruitfulness of mutual service: not only what the music does for the dance, but what your choreography can do for the music?
The music I am still drawn by is the gigantic repertoire of early, pre-Baroque period, dating from the eleventh century on. Then it is Bach, whose oeuvre is unique in the history of humanity, not only by its magnitude but also in its manifoldness. After Bach, my curiosity leaps over the classical and romantic periods into modern music, primarily the music of Webern, and then into contemporary music of the living composers, De Mey, Steve Reich, Toshio Hosokawa, George Benjamin, Magnus Lindberg. I didn’t know much about spectral music when my interest began to gravitate around Vortex – but I could reach it via Debussy and Messiaen who was a precursor of spectral harmony and Grisey’s professor.
To answer your question of why I stick with contemporary music: apart from the genuine inspiration I find in it, it is a question of moral duty I feel towards it. Contemporary music reflects our times, but it also has a difficult time to find its place with a broader public. Sometimes I see it literally disappearing in the low shelves of stores, and I want to unearth it, make it present and accessible again. I am not looking for ways to teach the audience and make them understand the music that they might not like at first hearing. I seek out to choreograph my experience of the music. What I am looking for are ways to make the audience perceive the dancing quality hidden there. And this is all the more challenging with contemporary music, because it abolishes regular pulse and tonal harmony in which our ears are bathing today thanks to the pop. So the alliance between contemporary music and dance is much more problematic: it goes beyond the immediate relationship that can be intuited between the properties of sound and movement.
Spectral harmony allows tonality to vaguely emanate through the resonance with natural harmonics, proper to any tone, which might evoke a remote sense of familiarity. What does specifically interest you in Vortex?
I am fascinated by how time is composed in this music, how it ranges from the coded time of regular pulse to a kind of liquefied temporality, where the pulse is destabilized or dissolved. Now that I am dancing to Bach’s Violin partita, the comparison between the music which was historically intended for dance and contemporary music is all the more evident. In spite of its layeredness and finesse, Bach’s gigue, for instance, offers a sense of natural flow and motoricity due to its rhythm and harmony, which contemporary music doesn’t do.
The sound space of Vortex is vast in both refinement and contrast of extremes. I hear it full of movement, especially as regards the movements of contraction and dilation of time. The potentiality of dance in this music is high. On the one hand, it stems from an abstract mathematical construction readible only in the score, which I find beautiful. On the other hand, it is anchored to the performance of the music, to the physical gestures of playing that reveal the relation between the musicians’ bodies to their instruments, as well as the consequence of sound from the concrete and raw materiality of the instrument that engenders it. What I particularly like about Vortex is that intensity is integral to composerly writing, and that the aim of the composition is to shape the experience of listening, a microscopic insight into the world of sounds and gestures that produce it. What continually draws me to integrate musicians in live performance in my work is that I love to watch them, and stay close to them, playing music. Dancing movement materializes the energy of music for the eyes and kinaesthetic experience of the audience, it visually records the perception of change in the passage of time.
How do you distinguish between watching music played and listening to dance?
It is a kind of laboratory work, where you untangle the fusion of things heard and seen, and in separating them and putting them together again, the chemical substance may change. I began experimenting with the synaesthetic shifts between watching and listening to sound and movement in The Song from which my collaboration with Ann Veronica Janssens and Michel François originates. In The Song, we composed movement to music and then removed the music from it. Using the technique of the foley artist, we would derive the foley sounds from movement and then subtract the movement that gave rise to the sound and superpose another dance to it. You see, even if my main “partner” is music, I spend a lot of time in studio working in silence where I seek out musicality created from movement alone. One of the principles I apply there is, as I refer to it, “my walking is my dancing,” where the rhythms inherent in the body, such as the most mechanical and automatic one, i.e. hearbeat, or breathing which is semi-mechanical and susceptible to change, or walking which is voluntary, form the ground of organizing movement in time and space, and its musicality. In studio, we try to listen to the dance. Then I also use a lot of time with dancers to watch the musicians play Vortex. When we watch the music we try to see a dance emerge from it.
At the same time, you engage a rigorous method of composing movement bar by bar, which entails a studious analysis of the musical score with the conductor of the Ictus Ensemble, Georges-Elie Octors.
I first developed the method of visually transposing notes into movement in choreographing Bartók’s string quartet in 1984. In choreographing the music of Ars subtilior in En Atendant and Cesena (2010-2011), the idea to stay close to music is realized through learning to “walk” the music, and eventually even sing it. Dancers are paired up with musicians, which is what I apply again in Vortex between six instrumentalists constituting a small chamber ensemble (flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano), and seven dancers (seven and not six, because two dancers correspond to the two hands of the extremely virtuosic piano part).
Thus dancers become the first-hand perceivers of the music. They offer the audience a window to see music through movement. What are the criteria you used to match up dancers and instruments respectively?
I search intuitively for correspondences between dancers and instruments. All matches are, of course, possible, but certain connections offer a more congenial combination of physical energies, not only between a particular dancing idiom or body of a dancer and the role that an instrument plays in the piece, but also between specific people dancing and playing music.
How does the the relationship between the dancer and the musician and his instrument evolve physically?
While in my last two works dedicated to the three-part counterpoint of Ars subtilior, the dancers are assigned tenor, contratenor or cantus phrases according to instruments or voices, in Vortex, not only do the dancers associate their movements with the instrumental part in the written score, but they also interpret the physical gestures of playing music. Hence, the gestures of arms will be prominent for dancers coupled with the strings, or breathing with the wind instruments, or jumping with the percussive cascades of the piano. I recall that already in the creation of Achterland (1990) our dancing movements appeared elephantlike compared to the fine swift movements of the violinist playing Eugène Ysaÿe’s sonatas, and that closely tying dance to music might require isolating certain body parts and avoiding to move the whole heavy skeleton in high speed. In Zeitung, I began to fundamentally investigate the genesis of movement in head, torso and pelvis. I started to connect other body parts to the three regions, hands symmetrical to feet, wrists to ankles, knees to shoulders. All these particular zones of movement are integrated by the spine being the axis of the body as a cathedral. In Vortex, I am exploring further the motion of unfolding and folding in, contraction and expansion of the spine.
Since most of the movement material is generated in studio, without musicians, what are the principles it is founded upon, independently of the music?
The dancers share the same geometrical framework of movement, which I have been developing since a while ago, i.e. magic square that determines points and directions in space and orients the bodily architecture. I adapted the qualities of tenor and cantus voices in the three-part counterpoint of Ars subtilior, where tenor designates slow and sustained movement, and cantus denotes quicker, denser, more detailed and spatially elaborated movement. The qualities that we refer to as “tenor” and “cantus” are then combined with various expressive attributes, such as attacked.
How does the distribution of watching and listening, dancing and playing music, between dancers and musicians shape the space?
It involves configuring perception between foreground and background, literally in space, and figuratively in attention. I adopted from rehearsals of Cesena with Björn Schmelzer how to rehearse standing in circle. In Vortex we often stand in a circle from which we start to dance. This enables everyone to be geometrically and dynamically connected within the same visual field. The patterns of movement in the music of Vortex invite circles and spirals in dancing. Like in Cesena and Partita, I am exploring again the circle with the pentagon inscribed in it. While square suggests a closed and static structure, pentagon offers a harmonious constellation as result of a sum of three and two, circles and angles, and it supports rotation characterictic of whirlpools, as well as vortical motion in general. The geometrical pattern in composing the space entails five circles and one large connecting circle, corresponding to six instruments in the music. In addition, I am investigating the notion of a mobile center, which is the only still point in vortices, and the movements of opening and closing, which correspond to contraction and expansion of time.
Interview by Bojana Cvejić