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Reaching upwards towards ecstasy

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker on ‘Drumming’

Jean-Luc Plouvier
Reading time
5 min.

Twelve dancers, backlit in an orange hue reminiscent of a glowing cinders, succumb to one of the monuments of American minimal music. An uninterrupted dance that is seamlessly passed on, body to body, its rousing pulse almost trance-like. Drumming, based on the eponymous composition by Steve Reich, is without a doubt a key work in the Rosas repertoire. In this interview, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker herself explains how she tackled the choreography.

Drumming by Steve Reich is a long piece in one tempo, with four movements that flow into each other. Three types of percussion are used: bongos, marimbas and chimes – skin, wood and metal. The work was first performed in New York in 1971 under the direction of the composer, and stems from an ethnomusicological study trip to Ghana. As in Ghanaian music, the rhythm in Drumming is intended to create ambiguity: with the continuous repetition the ear can no longer identify the first beat, let alone the general caesura of the bar. The main motif, which consists of twelve beats (3 x 4), can pass for binary or ternary, and numerous pronounced times can be discerned: this is a system of mobile accentuation.

Floating, pulsating, without ever chanting: the work had all the ingredients needed to appeal to a choreographer who refuses to move to the beat of the music, but would rather show the formal strength of the music and, to use her own beautiful expression, give the dancers ‘a bit of encouragement’. We asked Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker a few questions about this score, which is unique in musical literature.

The most striking quality of Drumming – I’m referring here to the music – is that it makes us hold our breath for an hour, with a single rhythmic motif that lasts less than two seconds. Did you try to achieve the same effect in the choreography?

Yes and no. Obviously I was fascinated by the challenge posed by Steve Reich and the choreographic potential of Drumming: an entirely uniform pattern that fills the whole duration of a performance and whose different events merge into one another unnoticed. But I wouldn’t have been able to respond to this fully by limiting myself to the obsessive repetition of a few movements. I had already done that sort of thing. I had written choreographies set to Berg and Schoenberg, had already evolved to broader phrasings and wanted to work with a large group (here: eight women and four men). I did, however, go in search of what musicians call a ‘monothematic’ response, in the form of a long basic phrase, a sequence of about two minutes, which I used as the basic structure for the whole performance.

What is noticeable from the beginning of the performance is the obvious accelerations and decelerations. Trajectories that die out and fall still and then suddenly come to life again.

That’s a result of my great obsession at that time: the spiral. The basic phrase is split up into eight motifs of equal length. But I ask the dancers to perform the eight motifs in a space that keeps getting bigger and bigger, by following the path of an opening spiral. The same duration in a space that keeps expanding. This makes it seem as though the movement is accelerating outwards, or vice versa, slowing down inwards, when the phrase goes in the other direction.

The carpet on the floor, with all its markings, was typical of your work during that period. At first sight it looks much more complex than a simple spiral.

It is! Those geometric figures are drawn so that you can see eight different spirals. That’s how Drumming gets its typical extravert character: there are eight escape points, eight doors to the outside.

An expanding space...

Yes, but more than that. The quality of the movements, which are highly articulated, and extremely delineated, means that the dancers appear to be perpetually marking out the space around them and re-composing it. You have to imagine each one of the dancers in an invisible parallelepiped, in which they mark out the space and the corners with their feet, stretched legs and arms, folded elbows and so on. That is the typical sign language of Drumming: outwards, around and upwards, and never downwards.

After the first movement (accompanied only by the bongos) and the exploration of the spirals, the marimbas join in. ‘Couleur africaine’. The dancing becomes more intense: it looks as though the dancers are working themselves into a trance.

That’s right, everything becomes more compact: the phrases get stuck in short movements to and fro, like in a film that catches or a video-scratch. The motifs assume the form of loops, which will move. The dancers get closer and closer to each other and touch each other: in order to be able to perform their two phrases, they have to carry each other, bend, fall towards each other – a bit like rock ‘n roll really! Lots of different techniques were worked out there, to achieve the counterpoint complexity that I’ve used so much in later productions.

After an interim movement, in which the dance slows down dramatically, the finale then resumes at a dizzying pace.

The finale is an especially virtuoso passage and demands an awful lot from the dancers. I kept only the fastest, most delicate sections of the basic phrase. And we then imagine that the axis is dislocated, as if the carpet suddenly begins to turn. The system escapes from itself. Just like in Reich’s music, which suddenly bursts forth with high frequencies: it lets go of the earth and reaches upwards towards ecstasy.

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