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When Anne Teresa De Keersmaekr and Boris Charmatz, choreographer and French dancer, found themselves together in the main courtyard at the Avignon Festival the idea came to them of working together. After more than two years of research in the studio, they are dancing a duet in which, as always in Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s work, the music plays a determining role. At the heart of their performance is Johann Sebastian Bach’s partita no.2 for solo violin which, in the words of Charmatz “forms a living architecture to which the dances sometimes aspire, yet knowing that they can never equal the original design”.
In A Choreographer’s Score you tell how the music of Bach was present during the rehearsals for Violin Phase, your first work. By choosing to use the partita no.2 do you have the feeling that you have come full circle?
Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker: At the time I was starting from zero: it involved me learning, in a very concrete way, to create a dance. Working with the music of Steve Reich was a form of self-apprenticeship. I loved the structure of that music- it’s repetitive, yet at the same time, has an incarnate structure that is both mathematical and sensitive, and we find the same qualities in Bach. I spent a lot of time in the studio on that piece, trying again and again to find the movements, to harmonise them, to find a structure. Bach was, indeed, present amongst the music that kept me going. It was a help. At one point I had to cut and I decided to make a 15 minute dance on Violin Phase. Gradually a certain number of ideas became clear: repetition, accumulation, combinations, and ways of putting the movements together. Then, how to organise all that in the space? There I had to ask myself what was the continuous part that allowed the repetition to move forward. The circle was the form which allowed me to establish this continuity. All that arrived in stages, by advancing and retreating. I created that first solo in 1982, that’s thirty years ago now!
Boris Charmatz: Amongst the things you said to me at the beginning of this project was this question: “Where is my dance today?” I have the feeling that certain choreographies make us ask this question, like places that we always return to, not the whole gamut but a place in which to reinvest. Do you think that partita no.2 fulfils that role today?
ATDK: I created four pieces in which I danced myself; afterwards, for various reasons, I needed to step back and I worked more and more as a choreographer. And then, at a given moment, I started to dance again myself. But it has been a very long time since I undertook to work in the studio with this question “What is my dance, my way of dancing today?” And it is really with that question in mind that I want to work on this Partita. It leads me to dig deep into the movements that are installed in my body, but it also leads me to reposition myself. We should not lose sight of the fact that Bach’s Partita dances, it moves a lot. Giga, corrente, allemanda: these are, basically, musical constructs that stem from folk dances.
These old layers are always present. What part does it play in your meeting and your desire to work together?
ATDK: The starting point was the Avignon Festival in 2011, where Boris was the Associate Artist. I don’t exactly know how, but we ended up saying “let’s dance together once, just to see”. We began by improvising, in silence, I seem to remember.
BC: Yes, it was a kind of workshop which already included certain questions that we took up again later, like “my walking is my dancing”.
ATDK: With Boris, there was a coming together. It is fairly unusual to find people who have a continuity of practice as a choreographer as well as a performer, and an articulate take on both –fed and linked endlessly by the question “what is my dance today?”. It is a bit what happened with Jerome Bel when I did 3Abschied – but this was more a work of the mind than the body.
In this piece you give the impression that you are trying to make the beat spatial by drawing in space a kind of musical infra-notation. How have you ‘sliced’ this score?
BC: We worked hard to find the counterpoint, the broken line, by relying principally on the bass. We are trying to make an underlying structure emerge by adding layer upon layer. Overall, it is this bass that we are following plus certain other elements that seem significant to us: outstanding moments, which provoke the imagination – pushing you towards a leap, towards country dancing.
ATDK: What interests me is that the dance should allow you to visualise the structure of the score, its foundations in some way, whilst at the same time allowing you to play on the more direct levels of the music. To be able to follow, at times, the immediate aspect of what the music calls forth from our bodies: the flights, the dizziness, the physical pleasure, the most immediate response to the sounds. These two levels are interwoven ceaselessly. And the fact that the musician is on stage taking part in these two levels, brings another visualisation of the relationship between the body and the music. In fact, Amandine Beyer’s playing gave us a greater understanding of the score and its internal mechanisms, and how we, for our part, should perform it. A performance always gives an image of the work process, and to be able to rehearse with Amandine Beyer and George Alexander Van Dam, the two violinists working with us, was a luxury and a pleasure. I think that the piece will also convey some of the pleasure that we experienced listening to, seeing and understanding this music in their presence.
In a sense, we find again what interested you in Reich’s music: the purity of the mathematical composition, and, at the same time, the sensitive, at times almost painful, aspect of the music.
BC: Bach is often considered to be a very abstract composer but in the partita, and particularly in the chaconne, we find a carnal part, a flayed-alive aspect. Amandine Beyer said that, for her, Bach’s music is always a dialogue with God; and yet those high, ear-splitting notes come from the soul of a man – and now I am going to commit a heresy – but a man deprived of God, for whom God is missing.
ATDK: For me Bach is structure, but his transcending dimension is written in the flesh. Afterwards, the same question arises whenever you tackle masterpieces: isn’t it too ambitious to want to create a dance to this music? Another question which I am continually asking myself concerns our duet: on this soloist framework, very refined, to create a duet man/woman, isn’t it a bit risky? Are we forcing a performance? Sometimes I think we should almost separate the bodies, make two solos. And yet at the same time our bodies follow the score, they embody the energies and rhythms that our bodies have internalised.
Talking about this project, Boris Charmatz wrote: “It is perhaps not about the desire for confrontation, nor voluntary parallelism, nor an exercise in admiration”. How did you try and place yourselves next to the music without being above, below or against it?
BC: When Anne Teresa told me that she wanted to work on some Bach I thought – oh, difficult! To take a well-known example, there are probably 95 dance versions of The Rites of Spring in existence of which many are very successful. I have rarely seen a successful choreography on Bach. It’s a mountain. Perhaps it’s too high, or too solid, too solitary, too abstract, I don’t know. In one way, what we are doing is never going to be at the level of this abstract architecture. As a result we are contributing a flutter, a light vagueness to it in comparison with the utter perfection of the music. The doubt is always there: can we manage to do something interesting? Can we measure up to this mountain? That’s another reason we walk so much… to wend our way through the music.
ATDK: The other day Boris invited me to take part in a Gift workshop for non-professionals, and we worked on this music – on the corrente and the allemanda. I gave them some basic principles and then we launched into it. We only had an hour and a half. Watching them dance to Bach I thought, “In the end, isn’t it better like this? Isn’t it more beautiful when it is not structured?” - some very simple gestures, without any particular technique. The way the music takes up the body, all its desire to reach this music, to merge with it.
BC: Well I think the two are possible: our work in the studio, trying, re-trying, again and again, and the work of amateurs, in an hour and a half. Because there is the performance and there is what the music will have left in us after all the time spent with it. When I go home I find myself whistling the partita and it is still in my head as I fall asleep.
Interview by Gilles Amalvi