“The question at the time was to connect”, is what Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker said when talking about her mighty diptych inspired by the work of Steve Reich: Drumming in 1998 and Rain in 2001. If these two works number amongst the most abstract in the world of choreography, of a truly remarkable sophistication that requires a stage covered in a tangle of graphs for it to be performed, they no less arouse a sense of intense jubilation which arises from the smoothness of the enchaînements and the fluidity of the circuits. It is the exaltation of an uninterrupted dance, seamless, endless, spread from body to body like a flame or a downpour. The twelve Rosas’ dancers and the nine Ictus’ percussionists are constantly on stage, bathed in a fluorescent orange, reminiscent of embers; they work on the minimalist material for an hour, during which the obsessive beat creates a trance-like state, yet, where the unpredictable variety of possibilities, created through constant repetition, seems to ceaselessly push back the limits of the space.
A long piece in four movements which dissolve one into the other with one tempo, Steve Reich’s Drumming uses three different percussion families: bongo drums, marimbas and Glockenspiels – skin, wood and metal. The work was created in New York in 1971 after the composer had spent time in Ghana whilst studying ethnomusicology. As in Ghanaian music, the rhythm in his composition is devised to produce ambiguity: at the end of the repetitions, the ear can no longer distinguish the original beat nor, for that matter, the general beat of the measure. The principal theme of twelve beats (3×4) can be seen as binary or compound and a multitude of strong beats can be grasped: here we are under the influence of floating accentuation. To float, to throb without ever scanning: the whole work had everything to seduce a choreographer who has refused to walk in step with conventional music, preferring to deconstruct the formal forces whilst asking it, as she puts it so well, to “give the dancers a push in the back”. We questioned Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker about her approach to this score, which is like nothing else in the history of music.
The most striking aspect of Drumming – I’m talking here about the music itself – is that it holds us spellbound for a whole hour on the basis of a sole rhythmic motif of less than two seconds. Did you look to take up the same challenge in the choreography?
Yes and no. I was, in fact, fascinated by the prowess of Steve Reich and the promise that Drumming represented in choreographic terms: a totally unified framework, which covered the whole length of the show, in which the events are tangled imperceptibly one with the other. However, I couldn’t just have reacted by resigning myself to the obsessive display of a few repetitive movements. I was no longer at that stage – I had choreographed Berg and Schoenberg and, above all, I had followed a path towards more sweeping phrasings and I wanted to deal with a large group (in this case: eight women and four men). Nonetheless I did look for a “monothematic” answer, as the musicians would say, by building a long basic phrase, a sequence of nearly two minutes, which served as the sole matrix for the whole show.
The minute the music strikes up, a preoccupation stares you in the face: the powerful play of acceleration and slowing down. Journeys that run out of steam and come to a dead stop and then begin again with dazzling speed.
That’s because of my big obsession at the time: the spiral. The basic phrase is cut up into eight motifs of equal length. But I ask the dancers to perform the eight motifs in a space that grows larger, in other words, by following the path of a spiral that opens out. The same length of time but in a bigger and bigger space. There is, therefore, the effect of great haste outwards and, on the contrary, when the phrase is performed in the other direction, a slowing down towards the innermost core.
The floor of the stage covered in marks was typical of your work at the time. At a rough guess, that seemed far more complex than a spiral.
That’s true! The graph on the floor is drawn in such a way that we are able to use it for eight different spirals. That gives Drumming this outwardly expressive quality: there are eight vanishing points, eight doors to the outside.
An ever-expanding space...
Yes, but not only that. The movements, very flexible, very jagged, give in other respects an image of the dancers ceaselessly demarcating and reconstructing the space around them. You have to imagine each one of them inside an invisible parallelepiped, marking the space and the corners with their feet, the legs outstretched and the arms held out with the elbows bent. All the action in Drumming is there: outside, around and upwards and without any work at floor level.
After the first movement (just the bongos in the score) and the exploration of the spirals, the marimbas join in. African colour. The dancing becomes tenser: a kind of upbeat towards the trance.
That’s it – everything becomes tighter: the phrases stick to short journeys to and fro, like a film that has stalled or a scratch video. The motifs go into a loop and the loops move backwards and forwards. The dancers close in on each other and touch: in order to carry out their phrases they have to, from thereon in, advance, bend, fall on each other – the whole rock ‘n’ roll, in short! All kinds of techniques have been invented there, in order to do justice to the contrapuntal complexity, which proved very useful in later productions.
After an intermediate movement where the dancing slows down considerably, the finale opens at dizzying speed.
The finale demands great virtuosity from the dancers. From the basic phrase I only keep the fastest and most pared down parts. Then it seems as if the axis dislocates, as if the floor had started turning. The system escapes from itself. Exactly like it does in Reich’s music, which is suddenly distorted with high pitch frequencies: it takes off and hurtles towards the climax.
Opgetekend door Jean-Luc Plouvier