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Rosas: Early Works

by David Mead

April 10-16, 2011 -- Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, UK

“For me dancing is a way of thinking. Through dance we can embody the most abstract ideas and thus reveal what we cannot see, what we cannot name” (Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker).

Even as late as the early 1980s, although Belgium had Maurice Béjart’s modern ballet company, there was little contemporary dance. Then, quite suddenly, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker arrived on the scene. A student of Béjart’s Mudra School and later New York University, she was noticed by presenter Hugo De Greef, who started to promote her work.


During a recent week of performances in London, audiences were able to trace the early
development of her style as Sadler’s Wells presented four of her early works that first made her
name on the international stage. Right from “Asch” in 1982 De Keersmaeker’s choreography
polarised opinion. Looking back to those early days in the Sadler’s Wells programme, De Greef
recalled, “Some were transfixed, others walked out.” Some things, it seems, never change.

The Sadler’s Wells week proved to be a fascinating journey. Each of the works presented
(“Fase”, “Rosas danst Rosas”, “Elena’s Aria” and “Bartok/Mikrokosmos”) features De
Keersmaeker’s pared down and repetitive vocabulary that minimises the movement elements. But
even in the five years that covered the season there were quite discernable changes as her work
matured. Ever present though was her concern with the relationship between music and dance,
even in “Elena’s Aria” in which she quite deliberately divorces the two. Her dance, though, rarely
illustrates the music. Rather she creates a structural analogy between the two, making visible some
of the compositional principles inherent in the score.

(April 10, 2011)

Opening the week long retrospective, “Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich” is a
1982 work to music by the minimalist composer that comprises three duets and one solo danced
to compositions that shift gradually in rhythm and melody. While the four dances may not have
different colours, each undoubtedly possesses a different shade and tone.

Structurally, all the works follow the interlocking patterns and phasing in the music. There are links
to the movement too. Angular gestures and the mechanical nature of the opening “Piano Phase”
reflect Reich’s percussive use of the piano, while the circular pattern in “Violin Phase” reflects the
fact the music is a rondo.

Talking about her work generally, De Keersmaeker once observed, “I think that ultimately each
dance is part of a larger whole, a dance that has no beginning, and no end.” That is certainly the
case here. Although each of the four sections is quite distinct from the others, “Fase” is most
definitely a single choreographic entity. In all four sections the dance is developed from short
sequences that are repeated and then shifted, varied and combined into new, longer phrases.
There are strong connections in the use of space and lighting, and in the later repetition of motifs
developed in the opening “Piano Phase.”

When it comes to moving around the stage, the straight line is king, but circles have a role too,
whether it’s the half turns in “Piano Phase,” moving round on a chair in “Come Out,” or in creating
a complex pattern in “Violin Phase.”

“Piano Phase” is the longest, and probably the most difficult section for those unfamiliar with

De Keersmaeker’s work. Dressed in calf-length dresses, white ankle socks and sneakers, De
Keersmaeker and Tale Dolven, the latter outstanding in all four works, move in front of a white
scrim, their shadows following them.

It starts in total unison. Blank faced with their right arms swinging, the dancers stride along a line
making frequent half turns. The synchronicity is mesmerising. The initially simple dance gets
increasingly complex but just when the steps have become fixed in the mind, small variations start
to appear. Before long the pair slip in and out of synch with each other, sometimes still facing the
same way, but sometimes facing each other. The change can be so sudden it comes as a shock, but
often it happens so gradually that you barely notice it at first. One effect of the repetition is that tiny
gestures, a sigh here, a glance there, a brush of the hair or a stronger flick of the arm, things that
may otherwise pass unnoticed, become intensely dramatic.

The second section, “Come Out,” is performed to the same recording of a young black man
arrested in a disturbance in New York, that was to more recently provide inspiration for Shobana
Jeyasingh’s “Bruise Blood.” It all takes place sat on two stools, each dancer under a light. Now
the movements appear more to reference everyday actions, although quite what is unclear. Is it
abstract? There are no clues in the programme, but one repeated gesture certainly looks like sewing,
or is it the nervous twitch of someone under interrogation.

On the face of it the solo “Violin Phase,” danced in London by De Keersmaeker, is a set of
steps that mark a circle and its radii. In fact, and this is very difficult to spot from the stalls, the
patterning is quite intricate. As anyone who has seen the film shot at MoMA in New York, when
De Keersmaeker danced on sand will testify, the rose window pattern that results is startlingly

The final “Clapping Music,” with its steps, hops and flips onto sneakered pointe is the most upbeat
section. At times the dancers look like characters on an Ancient Egyptian frieze. At the end the
audience roared its approval. And quite rightly too.

‘Rosas danst Rosas’
(April 12, 2011)

Although “Fase” is the most often performed of De Keersmaeker’s work, it is the award-
winning “Rosas danst Rosas” for which she is best known. Made in 1983 it saw her international
breakthrough and signalled the beginning of the Rosas company.

The piece features four female dancers in a series of five sections. Again both the music, created by
Thierry De Mey and Peter Vermeersch alongside the choreography, and the dance are repetitive and
minimalist in nature. The architecture of the space is now even more significant with the changing
spatial relationship between dancers important from the very beginning as De Keersmaeker plays
constantly with the positioning of the dancers, as well as with the phrasing and timing. Everything
is relatively simple to begin with, but by the time the exhilarating finale is reached it is complex
indeed. Sometimes three dancers are together, while a fourth is apart in the space or dancing
movement counter to the others. At other times it is two and two, or two and one and one. You
never know where it is going next.

The first section takes place on the floor and in silence. Silence, that is, apart from the dramatic
sound of the breath, bodies rolling and arms thudding against the floor. It’s all very redolent of a
sleepless night as slowly, the movement takes the dancers from upstage left to downstage right. The
second section takes place on chairs positioned diagonally across the stage. The drab costumes and
light and repetitive movement suggest a boring institution. The quick, energy sapping movement is

broader than in “Come Out” in “Fase”, but the link is clear. For part three De Keersmaeker returns
to playing with straight lines and diagonals, now accented by Remon Fromont’s strips of light. The
most complex choreography is left to the fourth and last of the long sections. Diagonals, straight
lines and circles now all combine. The importance of patterns is clearly revealed as they form and
break, and the relationship between the dancers constantly shifts. Finally, a short coda reflects the
exhaustion of the performers.

A few years ago a former Rosas dancer explained that each of the four parts represents a moment in
a day: sleeping and waking up, working, afternoon and evening and nightlife. It perhaps no surprise,
therefore, that recognisable gesture is now even more important. Time and again a dancer runs
her hand through her hair, turns her head sharply, straightens her blouse or, provocatively, tugs at
her blouse to reveal a bare shoulder. In “Fase” such moments appeared improvised. Here there is
no doubt. It is not only deliberate, but most of the time quite clearly has meaning. The link with
the everyday extends to the breaks between sections when the dancers reset the stage, carefully
arrange chairs, put on shoes, take time to get their breath back and, on one occasion, have a brief

I needed to get my breath back too.

‘Elena’s Aria’
(April 14, 2011)

At a little under two hours, “Elena’s Aria” was the longest of the works is the season. While
there are clear links to “Fase” and “Rosas danst Rosas,” it differs in many ways. Eighteen months
after “Rosas danst Rosas,” and like many artists, it seems as if De Keersmaeker had reached that
stage where she was questioning her work. Was her past style the way forward or should she look
for a new path?

In “Elena’s Aria” De Keersmaeker’s departs from many of the elements featured in both “Fase”
and “Rosas danst Rosas.” The minimalist, repetitive music of previous works has gone, replaced
by long periods of silence and occasional recordings of arias, always heard as if coming from a
next door room. The movement is also remote from the music in that it largely finds its own way
in its own time. New too is the use of spoken text and film projections, and while the formal dance
movement is as strong as ever, imagery now has much more impact.

The curtain rises to reveal around 30 or so chairs scattered about the stage. On them slump five
women in tight sleeveless dresses and high heels. You sense they have been there a long time. It
could be any waiting room, but mood is more important than place, imagery more important than
the order of the choreography.

Although the title comes from an aria in Verdi’s “I Vespri Siciliani,” one of those heard in the
distance, the piece takes its cue from a text from Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” spoken by one of the
dancers and in which the Russian writer laments his separation from a close and dear friend. An
overwhelming sense of alienation and melancholy runs deeply through the whole work, created
both visually and aurally. Everything points to the pain caused by the loss, absence of, and need for,
love, but while such emotions infuse the whole work they are never expressed openly.

Despite the differences “Elena’s Aria” is undoubtedly De Keersmaeker’s work. The repetition of
movement and motif is still there, although she has moved from a sparse minimalism to a more
complex one. Simple repetition is now allied with the revisiting of ideas, themes and images,
especially that of the opening scene, and the replaying of the same piece of music. Two motifs in
particular recur. Both are reminiscent of childhood games as the protagonists try to escape their

situation, albeit briefly. A stylised musical chairs using repeated movement is played out along a
line of chairs upstage, the dancers alternately chasing and running away, while later they try to run
round a chalk circle, their dresses held high on their thighs. As when the women in “Rosas danst
Rosas” reveal a bare shoulder, the latter again suggests sexual attraction.

In between the movement and distant music there is stillness and silence that suggests the slow and
painful passing of time. Even much of the movement takes place with the only sound being made
by the props and the dancers’ themselves; their breath and the click of their heels making a sort of
human music. There were some in the audience who found things slow going; too slow going. The
silences were often broken by the sound of people leaving. One young man a few rows in front of
me was clearly fast asleep. But there was plenty to take in, not least, and yet again, the astonishing
precision of the dancers.

As in “Rosas danst Rosas” there is a coda. To the strains of a Mozart sonata the five performers sit
in a row on chairs in front of the curtain, and perform a ballet of everyday gesture. It’s a return to
the music and dance being at one with each other. It’s simple, yet intensely beautiful and moving.
Hands are run through hair and dropped by the side, fingers drum on knees, heads are held in hands,
shoulders and bodies slump…all movements that draw heavily on everyday gesture. The message
is the same as in earlier works: this is real and it is heard work. It was hard for some of the audience
too, but definitely worth persevering with.

(April 16, 2011)

With its combination of danced works and piano recital, the three-part “Bartók/Mikrokosmos”,
could best be described as a dance-concert. The three sections were originally conceived quite
separately, De Keersmaeker only bringing them together in 1987, although there is more than
enough connection between them to form a coherent whole.

The opening dance duet “Mikrokosmos, Seven Pieces for Two Pianos” is set to Bartók’s work of
the same title, played live on stage behind the dancers. It opens with Elizaveta Pankóva and Jakub
Truszkowski manoeuvring each other out of the way so she or he can stand in front, the force
getting ever stronger and the resulting turns ever more complex. It is as if we have dropped in on
the couple at a point in time. There is a clear sense of relationship between them, even if we are
unsure of the causes of the unfolding story in which we find ourselves.

For the recital part of the evening the two pianists played three Ligeti pieces for two
pianos: “Monument”, “Selbsportrait” (Self-portrait) and “Bewegung” (Movement). The first was
oddly reminiscent of English church bells although the ringers had clearly only got an E in maths
(for those unaware, English church peals are all based on mathematics). None of the pieces are
particularly easy to listen to, although it was impossible not to draw parallels between the ever
changing ways the two pianos work together and structures in De Keersmaeker’s choreography.

The closing “Quatuor No.4”, in which four dancers are partnered by Bartók’s “String Quartet no.4,”
reminds us that De Keersmaeker can do fun. There are hints of aggression, but it is very much a
light-hearted piece with more than a few echoes of childhood. They find time to skip and play,
but sometimes act like naughty girls, bending over and pulling up their grey school-like skirts to
reveal white underpants, or hauling them up around their thighs making it difficult to walk. The
effect though is very different from the sexual nature of similar gestures in “Rosas danst Rosas”
and “Elena’s Aria.”

That “Bartók/Mikrokosmos” comes together as a whole is thanks to the music, and the sense of

relationship between the dancers and the dancers and musicians. In all three sections both the dance
and the music are filled with contrasting moments of hostility and togetherness, interlaced advance
and rejection, even aggression. In both danced sections there is also a sense of developing narrative,
even if it is one to whose conclusion we are not privy. “Quatuor No.4” in particular is packed with
sideways glances, giggles and even the occasional shout. But in both parts the dancers’ emotions
are clearly visible in their gesture and faces, allowing us to join in just by watching.

Rosas is not everyone’s cup of tea. Her work is full of interest though. Surprisingly perhaps, even in
many of the very repetitive sections there are possibilities for ascribing meaning. It is certainly often
packed with emotion. It’s just that it sneaks up on you in different ways, different ways that you
need to be open to.

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