After last year's En Atendant – a work inspired by the Ars Subtilior, a polyphonic musical movement which emerged in southern France, northern Italy and Cyprus at the end of the 14th century – Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker presented her new creation entitled Cesena in the Cour d’Honneur of the Palais des Papes in Avignon. This incredibly beautiful choreography – born at dawn and ending at twilight – has entered the history of the Festival. For Cesena, she has turned to the same musical repertoire once again, this time in collaboration with Björn Schmelzer and his Graindelavoix ensemble.
Why did you choose to base your work on the Ars Subtilior once again?
Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker: First and foremost because it is superb music. Until En Atendant, I had never dared to work with music written before Monteverdi. I was hesitant because I thought that this music was above all sacred, which frightened me and made me feel uncomfortable. My apprehension was based on very limited knowledge. When I learned about the Ars Subtilior, I discovered music which was in many respects very much in line with my tastes and concerns: a complex counterpoint which conceals a refined expression. But it was only while I was working on En Atendant that I realised that this repertoire is very beautiful and vast, and that there are many ways to approach it. For this creation in the Cour d’Honneur, I therefore wanted to explore it in a different way, by working with the vocal ensemble Graindelavoix rather than using instruments.
Björn Schmelzer: We try to interpret the score without being too rigid and without letting ourselves be inhibited by the prestige of this ancient art. A certain plasticity is possible and even desirable. In this case, we chose an exclusively vocal approach without instruments. This is rare, as it is generally accepted that the middle voices of the Ars Subtilior works are so sophisticated that they cannot be sung and must be played by instruments. I personally have my doubts, and I think that it was not the case at the time. But my approach is not only historical. Entrusting the entire polyphonic fabric to voices forces them to articulate and to be extremely precise, which makes them fragile. They thus call to mind the vulnerability of what emanates from the body. In this sense, the link with the physical world of dance is more immediate.
A.T.D.K.: The other reason for exploring the Ars Subtilior again is that I am fascinated by the historical context of this extremely refined music. The 14th century was a period of great changes. A world order was ending and other ideas were beginning to emerge. It was, for example, the century of the invention of the clock, which quantified time. In the area of philosophy, it was the dawn of revolutionary ideas. But all of this took place in a context of chaos and turmoil for the people at the time: the plague, the Hundred Years War, the transformation of feudal society, etc.
B.S.: Furthermore, figures such as Nicole Oresme were the first to conceptualise and give value to the notions of dynamics and intensity. We feel this very clearly when we listen to this music. It would not be a far-fetched comparison to speak of similar changes in the development of moving images in the 20th century. New terms were created to speak of new notions, such as acceleration, affect and chromatic colour. At the same time, the intellectual concepts of democracy and the redistribution of wealth emerged, only to achieve full visibility during the Renaissance.
Did you consider these two works – En Atendant and Cesena – as forming a pair from the very beginning?
A.T.D.K.: When Vincent Baudriller contacted me for the 2010 edition of the festival, my first idea was to use the Cour d’Honneur, and Ann Veronica Janssens (whom I worked with on Keeping Still and The Song) came up with the idea of a performance waiting for the dawn. But this was not possible due to timing. With Michel François – the other person who worked on The Song – we were therefore able to create a piece for the Cloître des Célestins, which was like a prelude to this work. At the time, I had already been speaking with Björn about a way to continue this exploration of the Ars Subtilior – this music linked to the papal court and Avignon. This new piece is also in keeping with my previous works. I have tried to prolong in a more elaborate way the experience of The Song, which I created in 2009: a work about silence, with male dancers and little means. In this year’s work, there will be no instruments on stage either – just voices. This interest in singing already existed in my last works: Keeping Still, The Song, 3Abschied, etc. For the first time, the Graindelavoix singers have allowed me to explore singing just as we explore movement. All of the performers will dance and sing on stage. The dancers and singers will try to ‘merge’ together.
B.S.: This ‘merging’ promises to be fascinating. The complexity does not lie in a simple accumulation of notes on paper. On the contrary, this music is addressed to singers who have learnt to sing by ear and know how to improvise lines; this is the art of listening and flexibility. I have discovered a whole new world: getting dancers to sing and letting them be guided by their energy rather than having them concentrate on the quality of their voices, has introduced me to new ways of expressing music, such as those which exist in other cultural traditions. For example, Matej Kejzar, a Slovenian dancer with the company, sang a sort of ballad during the rehearsals – modal music from the region of his childhood which bore a surprising resemblance to mediaeval music but with fresh intonations. A classical singer could not have sung it in that way.
A.T.D.K.: We were catapulted back to the 14th century with no intentions to ‘recreate history’, but rather as though our history had always been in our DNA.
How did you choose the music to be used on stage?
A.T.D.K.: The music for En Atendant was from northern Italy. I wanted the songs in this new creation to be more closely linked to the history of Avignon and the papal schism at the end of the 14th century.
B.S.: Our main source was the famous Chantilly Codex which is made up of more than one hundred pieces [a codex is a musical manuscript from the Middle Ages], and the enormous Cyprus Codex which comprises more than three hundred pieces. At the time, Cyprus was under the rule of the Lords of Lusignan (Poitou). This choice was not only based on musical considerations; the texts are also significant. A selection of ten pieces paints an almost narrative picture of the Great Schism of the West. The first sung piece, for example, is an anonymous and politically oriented motet, which justifies the return of Pope Gregory XI of Avignon to Rome, by making use of fake genealogical and astrological proof. Later, the superb song by Johannes Ciconia entitled ‘Le Ray au Soleil’ introduces the emerging theme of light; it is a meditation on the Visconti blazon. This musical and mathematical feat superposes three voices with three different rhythms. The closing song is attributed to Jean Hamelle ¬– who came from Cambrai but worked at the Lusignan court – and links the east and the west; the pole of the rising sun and that of the setting sun. This piece intertwines two different Latin texts until they merge. One bemoans our mortal condition and is a night text, while the other refers to the spark which exists only in humans and which makes them eternal: ‘Splendor’. This is a daylight text. This bridge between the east and the west, as well as the mingled day and night themes, call to mind a premonition of the European Renaissance.
One of the particularities of your creation lies in the choice to work with six singers and thirteen dancers – a group of nineteen people, sixteen of whom are men. What is brought into play by this mainly male presence?
A.T.D.K.: It is a way for me to continue the work begun with The Song. Working with a very ‘male’ or ‘female’ group clarifies the main themes of a performance and gives it unity. For the past few productions I have been pursuing a certain ideal of lightness, weightlessness and resistance to gravity. This overlaps with the theme of the passage from night to daylight. Everything I love and value with respect to male dancers is in keeping with this: not weight or strength, but the bounding energy they have – their radiant side.
Your last works, The Song and En Atendant, give the impression that your artistic choices are based more and more on a desire for refinement.
A.T.D.K.: Yes. Sometimes it is good to remove the wrapping paper in order to ask ourselves an essential question: what do we need? As I have a very strong conviction and love for the rhetorical potential of the body, I prefer reducing the costumes and lights to a minimum. For this new creation, the Cour d’Honneur will therefore be presented to the audience openly and without artifice, or rather with the simple and subtle scenographic devices conceived by Ann Veronica Janssens. They are the fruit of a reflection on daylight and its radiance, as well as on blindness. While En Atendant explored the poetic paradox of an unveiling at night or an apparition in the darkness, this time the opposite effect will be dealt with: something hiding in the daylight. As with En Atendant, we will of course adapt this open-air setting for the performance at La Monnaie. In response to your question regarding the simplicity of means: yes, I deliberately chose a choreographic vocabulary which is based on very simple elements, such as walking. Walking allows me to move in space and to strengthen or weaken social ties. But walking is also a way to divide time and to quantify it with each step. To a certain extent, walking is therefore space and time anchored in my body.
B.S.: What you say is interesting because in the 14th century, the tempo of songs was linked to walking and the galloping of a horse. Walking is a good parameter of speed and slowness.
A.T.D.K.: More generally speaking, I have come across the same questions in my works for the past five years. How can we reveal the roads and circuits which go through the body and mind and connect them? These connections – which make us human beings when they materialise and are embodied in dance and singing – have a name: jubilation. Attempting to expose the heart of this jubilation was to some extent like returning to a certain minimalism. Not the minimalism of my beginnings of course, but rather like a spiralling return. We began this work in Zeitung based on the music of Anton Webern and Bach, and pursued it in The Song, 3Abschied and En Atendant. Our starting point is the body, which is the most individual aspect of ourselves as human beings – the most visible and at the same time the most secret. The human body has probably changed very little throughout the centuries, but it has been shaped by the mass of human experiences. Creating a work based on 14th century songs is also like bringing the body’s memories back up to the surface.
Interview by Maxime Fleuriot de Bruyn