'En Atendant' and 'Cesena'
by David Mead
November 5&8, 2012 -- Sadler's Wells, London, UK
“While waiting, I must suffer grievous pain and languishing live; such is my fate…”
So begins the translation of the song in “En Atendant”, the first half of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s dance diptych. Looking round the audience during the first ten minutes, it looked like that was precisely what was going through quite a few minds. There was lots of looking around aim heads strained towards the ceiling, while the man right in front of me pulled his coat around him as if settling in for a long night.
It was understandable. The opening is not promising. De Keersmaeker rarely makes life easy for those watching and this was no different. With the house lights still full up, Michael Schmid walks to the front of the stage and, for a good ten minutes, blows across a flute. The sound is a combination of ghostly groans and a whistling cold wind. With the rest of the stage bare apart from a single thin line of earth and a solitary bench, it certainly created an atmosphere of desolation.
Slowly and surely, though, things picked up and “En Atendant” turned into an absorbing evening’s dance. The Sadler’s Wells stage is a long way in all senses from the original setting of the medieval walls of Avignon, but as the piece developed it was impossible not to picture the original space in the mind. Those images were helped along by the way that line of earth got spread slowly around creating a dusty floor, and the slow dimming of the theatre lights over the next hour and a half that replicated, as far as possible, the fact it was originally danced at dusk.
De Keersmaeker has long been inspired by music and rhythm, and both “En Atendant” and “Cesena” are no different. Her starting point was the Ars Subtilior, a complex, elaborate form of polyphonic music from the 14th century, in “En Atendant” performed live by soprano Annelies Van Gramberen, Thomas Baeté on fiddle and Bart Coen on recorders.
As is De Keersmaeker’s want, much of “En Atendant” in particular is based on walking patterns. It starts simply but soon develops into complex phrases in which moments of unison suddenly appear, and just as suddenly disappear. The dancers could be seen as notes walking across a giant score laid on the stage. In fact, as a program note tells us, each is walking a musical line, solo dancers taking up the cantus and groups the heavier tenor. As a whole it all had a very formal, almost courtly feel and was quite spellbinding.
The music comes from the time of the plague and the falling apart of social, political and religious society, and there are plenty of references to that too. The dance starts to disintegrate. Two of the men prowl around the stage as if sizing each other up for a fight. A violent solo by Bostjan Antoncic in which he seemed to be fighting demons in his mind sets off a chain of dances that includes lots of chasing, reaching out, grabbing hold and then falling away.
As the end approaches, there is a sense of death about the piece. Several times the dancers lay in a pile, body upon body, looking for all the world like a heap of corpses. As the last light fades away, one man is left. He is naked. As he disappears, all that is left is the ghostly sound of his breath.
Three days later and everyone was back for the partner piece, “Cesena”, which was originally presented at dawn. The performances at Avignon started at 4am, which must be some sort of record. In the theatre this is replicated by starting in darkness. Voices and heavy footsteps of people running are heard. Occasionally there is a glimpse of a distant shape, but it is a strain to see anything. Out of the darkness appears a nude male, who stands on the edge of the stage and begins to howl and screech. It is a song to herald the dawn that is raw and rough.
As the light slowly comes up the dancers of Rosas and singers from the Antwerp early music collective graindelavoix slowly appear. It is sometimes hard to tell which group people are from. The dancers sing, and the singers dance. Always the voices have a magical quality.
As with “En Atendant”, the dance is far from abstract. The straight line of brown earth of that first piece is now replaced by a chalky white circle around which much of the action takes place. As before, it is gradually obliterated as it is spread around by the cast. While again, there is a close dialogue between the music and the movement, here everything seems more fragmented. Sections do not flow into one another quite so easily. All round, it is harder going and certainly needs more patience. It is worth sticking with though. There are many surprisingly beautiful images among the pedestrian dance. The end comes quite by surprise. With no warning, everyone simply files off stage left with no ceremony whatsoever. For a moment there is nothing; complete silence. Then the applause begins.
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