Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker
The Place Theatre
Wednesday 1st November 2006
I'm definitely a Rosas fan and was therefore delighted the company had such a strong presence at this year's Dance Umbrella festival, demonstrating what a key figure De Keersmaeker is in C21st dance. 'Once' reminded me that she is not just a leading choreographer but also a beautiful dancer with a strong, compelling, but sometimes also disturbing presence. This is not the first time she's performed this piece in London (Cassandra reviewed it during the 2003 Dance Umbrella).
If you haven't seen it, it is a personal meditation on the classic 1963 LP 'Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2'. This old vinyl record sits on a turntable at one side of the stage with its battered old cardboard sleeve propped against the table leg for us to see. De Keersmaeker grew up listening to it, and knew all the words by heart before she knew any English.
Its songs are of course an invitation for her to dance, something she goes straight into, revealing her extraordinary sensitivity to music. Baez was singing what were then modern folk songs, and De Keersmaeker picks up on their energetic folk-like quality while, to my mind, purging it of the sentimental associations it usually carries. (I wonder if it is the creation of these kinds of absences that has left Karl and Stella feeling unmoved?) But what is so fascinating for me about 'Once' is its complex, highly layered structure. Although De Keersmaeker dances to Baez, she doesn't become her, merely repeats many aspects of her performance in a way that is strongly coloured by her own preoccupations and experience.
Half way through the record Baez tells her adoring audience something like 'I feel so comfortable with you tonight I think I'm going to kick my shoes off'. When we heard this I'm sure everyone in the audience immediately connected it with the piece's extraordinary opening. De Keersmaeker came on stage unexpectedly while the house light were still on, and loudly, one after the other, kicked off her shoes, each landing with a resounding thump. Then striding into the middle of the stage, she said 'Once' in a strong, loud voice, instantly hushing the audience.
There were other moments when De Keersmaeker said something a short while before Baez herself said it on the record (making uncanny folds in time). De Keersmaeker wasn't so much announcing the songs as sharing with the audience her process of remembering what came next.
Yet there was also a strange distancing at work. Baez, on the record, gave a brief explanation of a Spanish love song she was about to sing that has a shocking twist at the end revealing the lover's jealousy. Baez told this in a way that made her audience laugh. When many of De Keersmaeker's audience also laughed, she quickly commented, almost as an aside, that while we might think it was funny she didn't.
And it was this distancing that came to the fore as the piece progressed. The way in which Baez and her audience sing 'We shall overcome' (apparently recorded in Birmingham, Alabama, on the same day as a mass arrest of Civil Rights demonstrators) is highly affecting - people don't have that kind of idealism any more, and it is widely felt that, in retrospect, the liberal lefties of the 1960s achieved much less than they had hoped to do.
It was particularly poignant to hear Baez and then Dylan singing the latter's anti-war anthem 'God is on our side' and add to its list of appalling wars all those that have happened since 1963 which, despite having God on our side, 'we' haven't been able to stop, not least the ongoing military occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.
After the song ended, there was a long final sequence, in which the civil war section of DW Griffith's classic silent film 'Birth of a Nation' was projected onto De Keersmaeker's vulnerably naked dancing body and on towards the drapery hanging at the back of the stage. I'm sure she understands that although dance is not in itself a space in which political goals can be achieved, it is nevertheless tied to the fortunes of the disappearing public space in which an exchange of political ideas can take place. We need to find new ways of staying in touch with the ethical feeling that violence and justice have to be opposed. This, for me, was what made the disturbing emotional impact of her dancing during this final section so resonantly significant.