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Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker & Jérôme Bel

'3 Abschied'

by David Mead

November 21, 2011 -- Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, UK

Is it possible to choreograph to “Der Abschied” (“The Farewell”), the final part of Mahler’s “Song of the Earth”? That is the question that set Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker off on a journey of discovery that is retold in a fascinating, absorbing and very special evening’s theatre that is part discussion, part concert, part dance performance. It’s also full of the unexpected as we learn as much about her as we do about the music itself.

De Keersmaeker and Belgian contemporary music ensemble Ictus walk on stage and take their seats. But instead of playing and dancing, they all sit in silence. Then she puts on a CD. It is an oddly beautiful scene as everyone sits and listens intently as the sound of Kathleen Ferrier and the Vienna Philharmonic wafting over the audience. Suddenly the disc is stopped and De Keersmaeker talks about the genesis of the project and the music, drawing parallels between its theme of the acceptance of death, the fact Ferrier knew at the time of the recording that she had cancer, and today’s ecological concerns. It’s more conversation than lecture, and there are occasional moments of humour such as her recollection of a meeting with Daniel Barenboim, who told her that the score was impossible to dance to, and that if she tried, she would lose its magic. Why not try other romantic composers he says, Stravinsky, Satie, Debussy…As she opens up it is clear she is genuinely moved by the music. But can she choreograph to it in a way that embodies the emotion and themes in the score in movement? That is the question.

Eventually the orchestra get to play. De Keersmaeker seems unsure where to start. She works initially with the upper body movement and gestures of conductor George-Elie Octors. Her hands are particularly expressive, painting pictures against the black background. As her dance develops she sails around the musicians, but more often than not as if in a storm. You can see she recognises the emotion in the music, but she struggles to marry her own well-known metronomic style including the swinging arms and sharp turns, of which there are plenty of hints, and what she really feels.

Fellow choreographer Jérôme Bel confirms what we can all see. This way does not work. He calls on Haydn’s Symphony no.45 (“Farewell Symphony” or in German, “Abschieds-Symphonie”) for inspiration, using his idea of having the orchestra get up and leave one by one as the piece ends. Then, since the work is about death, why not take things a stage further and get the orchestra to die. Cue memories of Monty Python as one by one the musicians become deceased. This version certainly had impact, although not quite in keeping with the thoughts behind the score. The first musician hit the floor with quite a thud, and it quickly became hilarious as others followed, some ‘deaths’ being rather more convincing than others.

And so to the third version, in which pianist Jean-Luc Fafchamps plays a piano reduction of the score. De Keersmaeker dances and sings, the latter being something she had earlier said she wanted to do. It is all most sincere, but both are a struggle. Her movement and voice, the latter of which is largely very faint, are loaded with uncertainty. She looks awkward, even pathetic as she still struggles to come to terms with the music. We struggle too, struggle to believe that she can look so ordinary, so normal, and let’s be honest about it, fail again. But that makes it all the more gripping. At the end, as she walked towards the audience, then stands, staring out from the very edge of the stage, you could have heard a pin drop.

Of course there are successful choreographies to the score, most notably Kenneth MacMillan’s and Heinz Spoerli’s ballets, but just how far do they really get deeply inside it? Just how far do they really reveal the emotions and ideas? Did Barenboim have a point? Is a conventional choreographic response that is true to the music nigh on impossible? It is true that De Keersmaeker and Bel fail to produce dance that we expect and of the type we have come to associate with her or Mahler’s score. But it is dance. It is a response to the music. It is real. It certainly reflected the struggle she was experiencing. Their explorations and tussles with Mahler’s creation reveal much about the music too. I’m not sure that I will ever watch dance to it, or even just listen to it, in the same way ever again.

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