A Subtler Dance — Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s ‘En Atendant’ and ‘Cesena’ at the 18th Sydney Biennale

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Rosas during performance of Cesena at the Palais des Papes in Avignon. Photo © Anne Van Aerschot. Pictured: dancers Carlos Garbin (left centre) and Marie Goudot (right centre).

Rosas during performance of Cesena at the Palais des Papes in Avignon. Photo © Anne Van Aerschot. Pictured: dancers Carlos Garbin (left centre) and Marie Goudot (right centre).

Carriageworks theatre, Sydney, September 11 and 14, 2012

En Atendant
Choreography – Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker
Created and danced by Rosas :
Bostjan Antoncic, Carlos Garbin, Cynthia Loemij, Mark Lorimer, Mikael Marklund, Chrysa Parkinson, Sandy Williams, Sue-Yeon Youn

Music –
…L(ÉLEK)ZEM..’ – Istvan Matuz
En Atendant, souffrir m’estuet (ballade) – Filippo da Caserta
Estampie En Atendant 2 (2010) – Bart Coen
Sus un’ Fontayne (virelai) – Johannes Ciconia
Je prens d’amour noriture (virelai) – anonymous
Esperance, ki en mon coeur – anonymous

Flute – Michael Schmid
Cour et Coeur:
music director and recorders – Bart Coen
fiddle – Birgit Goris
voice – Annelies Van Gramberen
Scenography – Michel François
Costumes – Anne-Catherine Kunz
Rehearsal Director – Femke Gyselinck

Concept – Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Björn Schmelzer
Choreography – Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker
Musical Director – Björn Schmelzer
Created with and danced by Rosas and graindelavoix:
Olalla Alemán, Haider Al Timimi, Bostjan Antoncic, Aron Blom, Carlos Garbin, Marie Goudot, Lieven Gouwy, David Hernandez, Matej Kejzar, Mikael Marklund, Tomàs Maxé, Julien Monty, Chrysa Parkinson, Marius Peterson, Michael Pomero, Albert Riera, Gabriel Schenker, Yves Van Handenhove, Sandy Williams
Scenography – Ann Veronica Janssens
Costumes – Anne-Catherine Kunz
Music – Ars Subtilior


If all sound comes from movement, and all music comes from sound, then all music comes from movement — and so does all dance. Music is defined also by its silences and its spaces — or rather time — left around the notes, but as John Cage so eloquently expressed, silence is not nothing, even if it does not solely belong to the piece of music, neither to the musicians, their instruments nor the composer. There is always “movement” in the general, figurative sense, in an attentive audience, within their minds, their beating hearts, their souls set vibrating — if one can still hear the trepidation of the spheres over the barbaric post-industrial noise of the world. Dance too, similarly or sympathetically, but perhaps not identically, has stillness (despite the multi-modal thrill of the Waltz) sometimes not even with a pose, as we see in En Atendant and Cesena, where the dancers are often merely left as if a scattered handful of sand or the denizens in their place, and neither does this stillness preclude “movement” in the broader, non-scientific sense (though to be fair to science, even in mathematics, the derivative where it equals zero still exists).

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and her company Rosas made En Atendant and Cesena with ars subtilior music from the late 14th Century and the works are inspired by this music’s milieu. Far from exploiting the music to set an old-fashioned sounding background mood  or for a pretentious grab at eclecticism, the choreography responds sensitively to it, and, even on tour on the other side of the world, de Keersmaeker brings the musicians to play in the theatre, rather than using a recording. Indeed, there are long periods of silence — with and without dancing, though sometimes it is not silent dancing. The dancers, especially some of the men, can dance very noisily (intentionally), something one doesn’t see very often exploited so deliberately, rhythmically and in varied tones, in theatrical dance. The snazzy sneaks Rosas wears, in bright teals, purples, blues and reds, (otherwise they wear all black or dark jeans) can squeak like a basketball game, and the gray dirt which comes off onto the stage after one of the men’s long solo in En Atendant, is shuffled and scraped about by others. Ann Veronica Janssen’s (a regular collaborator with de Keersmaeker, and who also had two of her mylar-sheet creations at this latest Sydney Biennale) chalk circle on the stage for Cesena is purposefully smeared by feet and bodies. But even when de Keersmaeker dances herself (she does not give herself credit as a dancer in the program) alone softly, in silence, as at the beginning of En Atendant with all her intrinsic lyrical grace which seems to allow shoulders, neck and fingers to move independently but harmoniously, even then her movements carry the memory of the vivid music which she chose for her diptych, her stop and start movements seem carried across from the music’s inventive and unpredictable rhythms, with a certainty of memory but very vulnerable, very human uncertainty of the future, her steps hesitant but repeating; one never knows what will happen next, or what strange chord, now lost from Western Music’s system, will unfurl. The untidiness of these dances makes them very appealing and recalls the ever so lightly combed polyphony of the music. Robert Herrick would approve, in that it

…Doe more bewitch me, then when art
Is too precise in every part.

Not that they lack precision in their own variety of modern dance technique, but “dramatic” expression always comes first. The choreography avoids spectacle and virtuosity for its own sake. Cesena and En Atendantare very subtle, but thankfully too untidy, too florid at times, to be minimalist. The movements are often slight in themselves, as if unconscious, or preconscious, movements, and appear even more subtle in the great black space of the Carriageworks stage, a vast former train repair building which was recently modified to take a theatre, gallery and farmer’s market, likewise they feel absolutely no duty to fill the whole time with motion, or music or sounds. And a great amount of time it is — they are expansive pieces, full-length, around 90 minutes, encompassing not less than human history and prehistory, and no more than individual experience, with neither sentimentality nor anything maudlin. Though relatively sparse of motion, the pieces collapse in one’s memory into a dense, substantial pile of movement. There is nothing shocking or exploitative, nothing self-referential or designed to (dis)please an audience, modern or otherwise (except for the fact some in these audiences seemed to find it “interminable”: see below), as festival pieces, at least in Sydney, are sometimes expected to do. There is no plot but certainly things happen with a certain dramatic cadence even if it is the piece’s own and an unfamiliar one — the drama moves almost like the primitive, archaic, forward and backward gait of a long ritual, or someone else’s life. There is no story, but the dancing is full of character.

Istvan Matuz’ …L(ÉLEK)ZEM..’, a recent avant-garde piece of flute music, opens En Atendant and summarizes the whole work nicely, here functioning as a very satisfying and engrossing overture — a wonderful invention of the theatre and one of the babies modern dance threw out with ballet’s bath-water. Michael Schmid walks out with his flute (perhaps the oldest known musical instrument), to front center stage and begins to breath heavily, in very audible breaths, even near the back of the theatre. He raises his flute to his breath and a more modulated sound resonates in its bore but without a pure tone. Gradually he finds a low pitch and slowly but continuously it rises chromatically (or more gradually as he bends the notes) presumably using a circular breathing technique, but however it’s done, this is strung out into a piece-of-music-length (somewhere around 4:33?). In a way here humankind discovers music and brings the dawn on his own without speaking a word directly to Apollo or even Pheobus, without any blood sacrifice — a kind of reduced version of Richard Strauss’ Zarathrustra. Cesena‘s “overture” is rather different: a naked man, who had danced the very end of En Atendant as the lights dimmed to blackness, walks out onto the stage with the absolute lowest lighting possible that’s still lit, with quick, long, deliberate strides, stops front and center, and shouts in rough off-key notes, half speaking, half singing, in vaguely Indo-european syllables. This lasts maybe the better part of 10 minutes and he leaves after running laps of the chalk circle on the stage. But that naked man’s whole demeanor is as if he were completely unconscious of being a naked yelling man. The whole company for Cesena, singers and dancers, then moves about the stage in a closely glombed mass, half walking, half marching in lock step, but with rythmically complex steps, starting and stopping, and soon a hammer on an anvil starts to sharply tap out the beats. They could be working on the first exercise from Chapter 1 of Hindemith’s music course. The beats continue over the beginning of the first motet.

En Atendant, named for the first song of the piece, Filippo da Caserta’s En Atendant, souffrir m’estuet, and is the day, gradually dimming into night, though is in a way the more abstract of the two. Cesena is the night, gradually coming into dawn. Beyond that, the program gives the titles of the pieces of music and the lyrics of the first piece with a translation, a little bit of modern dancese on the choreographer’s choice of late 14th Century, post Black Death, European music, but otherwise the program doesn’t give very much away to affect our prejudices. With Cesena we are given titles and descriptions of the pieces of music, here they are somewhat more varied and more of them, there are translations of some of them, but these descriptions seem designed to be suggestive, for example, explaining that Solage wrote his Corps femenin in praise of the body of the eight year old Queen Cathelline of France, bride of the Duke of Berry, and that Philippot de Caserta composed Par les bons Gédéon et Sanson “in praise of Avignon Pope Clement VII, responsible for the massacre of Cesena in 1377.” There is also a fragment of Serbian epic poetry (with translation), sung with a suitably wailing, nasal voice by Rosas dancer Matej Kejzar, and the motet Jean Hannelle’s double cantus Homo mortalis firmiter/Hodie puer nascitur written for the court of Cyprus, with the latin and english translation of its light mystic poems. But neither piece, either through the program or choreography, tells us what to think.

Cesena can be more explicit in a way, but never downright in execution. Perhaps more obviously interpretive here is the dancing during the singing of Corps femenin where a woman lies inert on the floor as a man lifts and moves her limbs about aimlessly, though other choreographers might treat it in a more obviously disturbing manner. The idea is disturbing enough with de Keersmaeker’s light touch. The words are usually obscured by the music, as often happens in medieval music, even while the composer and poet are often the same person, and, in the case at least of the 15th Century Chantilly Codex, from which Corps femenin and several of the others come down to us, the scribes copied the words carelessly while they wrote out the notes and staff beautifully with great care. As grandelavoix sing Par les bons Gédéon et Sanson, bodies pile up on stage messily, singers lie on their back and are dragged across the floor, though the scene is tempered by the vast space and very obscure lighting, which lights the whole first half of Cesena. There is a sort of Christ who emerges with the anonymous Kyrie from the Toulouse MS, who dances intensely but not violently (or martially) until out of breath when he breathes heavily for a few minutes as all is otherwise still and silent. He lies down, quiescent but stiff in the circle and is carried off to a dark corner of the stage where the three women in the cast moves doubtfully about him as the rest of the men sing in front. The man eventually gets up again, after the women change his shirt.

Rosas during performance of Cesena at the Palais des Papes in Avignon. Photo © Anne Van Aerschot.

Rosas during performance of Cesena at the Palais des Papes in Avignon. Photo © Anne Van Aerschot. 

En Atendant, is simpler, with barely any scenography, dancers dance and the musicians (recorder, fiddle and soprano) sit on a bench and play or watch, but the execution of the dance can be more concrete in reference, for example in the long fighting solos of the men which almost recall a martial art, or the undressing when the cast swaps pants on the stage at one point, a movement which has all the grace and interest of a modern department store dressing room. The fighting movements are perhaps redeemed by denying any excitement or drama to fighting in the repetitive, somewhat stale movements — fighting is mundane and should be so depicted here. These (over)familiar, concrete movements are the exception, though they do stand out, in En Atendant, which also has long subtle parts, with slight movements, stillness, silence or both. The slight movements too can be familiar, the movements and gestures of  modern people, but which one cannot quite place, are they social gestures? or agricultural? or industrial? These take place in silence or directly follow or accompany the medieval trio of musicians, who wear modern dress, street clothes, but smart ones, singing love songs of the Avignon court. The gestures and movements, though familiar, are slight, removed, seemingly frayed and reordered, but really are sharply observed, reminiscent of Pina Bausch’s. They are unconscious movements which perhaps everyone uses without realizing. The movements, especially when de Keersmaeker herself dances them, are often hesitant, doubtful; she steps as if dipping her toe into water which could be either a too cold North Sea or a too hot bath (though maybe the latter image isn’t compatible with the medieval theme). Walking about the stage, which happens often, the dancers have a bit of that self-conscious modern dance walk at times, though it is walking with no particular purpose. Elsewhere, there are running, squeaking, game or sport-like movements, a dancer will even speak a coordinating mono-syllable as if playing a game, but the running from side to side,  back and forth insensibly turns into a rhythmic distillation of any grace that was there. It turns into dancing.

Each “scene” avoids being a scene by presenting itself as detached from the theatre but convincingly presented as the only natural consequence to come next, often using periods of stillness in between. One is never aware of any reference to a story. There is no idea of “Ah, here is the ball scene.” “O, I wonder how they’ll do the balcony scene?” Both dances proceed without formula but not without experimentation. They dance these pieces, even leaving aside the shouting naked man, with a primitive deliberateness, but without solid aim, or at least full of doubt as to what will become of them and their creation in the material world, if not the immaterial. It is primitive in that it is half evolved and evolving, with vestigial messiness and nonfunctional imperfection, and under the dark lighting, some of the dancers even seem to have facial types from long ago. This is a gothic dance, ornamented but very straight, capable of subtlety, ephemeral but massive, wispy at the edges.

Cesena has no explicit fighting, which is a relief in a way, its violence is expressed more statically in the piles of bodies, maybe too in the smearing out of the chalk circle near the end. It also takes greater liberties with its music. De Keersmaeker’s intention was to blur the roles of the singers and dancers by mixing them all together on stage in similar dress (though the singers don’t seem to get snazzy sneakers!), singers dance and dancers sing. But Cesena also, somewhat annoyingly interferes with the music, sometimes stopping it short before its end, or taps that anvil relentlessly over the singing, or combines the professionally trained early music singers with rougher voiced dancers who have less certain intonation, or with off-key shouting as at the end of the piece, as in the beginning (but now the shouter is dressed), or loud crashing bodies over the delicate polyphonic music, or when it put a microphone on one singer for part of one piece to pull his voice out in an odd artificial way, used, less subtly, for effect.

Ars subtilior music from the Codex Chantilly: "Belle, bonne, sage" by Baude Courdier.

Ars subtilior music from the Codex Chantilly: “Belle, bonne, sage” by Baude Courdier.

The music was very well performed, and an uncommon treat to hear. Annelies Van Gramberen sings in En Atendant, with a lovely voice, light but firm in the vast theatre, which had surprisingly good, somewhat cathedral-like acoustics (maybe the Carriageworks is underutilized as a music venue?), and very sure in intonation and expression, even in the very difficult parts, with its interweaving dissonances and extended melisma. The ensemble at moments had a rare close rapport, and a very sweet sound. Likewise, graindelavoix sang the several part motets surely and confidently, combining with a pleasing light but sweet tone with an expressive sense for the dynamics, even while taking part in the dancing.

That is when the audience wasn’t making noise. I’ve never seen so many, even if the minority of the audience, walk out of a modern dance performance, especially on the 11th (which night, I was told, was all comped) — the rude ones at these performances standing up, pushing through the aisles, clumping down the stairs to fumble for the exit door, even trying the doors, on the 14th, after the ushers told everyone the doors would be locked until the end. Another more easily fixed annoyance were the sight-lines in the Carriageworks’ theatre: for some reason the seats have been placed in ranks, one directly behind another, rather than with an offset between rows as every other theatre in the world does. This makes it impossible to see the whole stage which is level with the first row. Otherwise the rows are well sloped and the aisles wide, so it should be easily fixed by adding a seat to every other row, or removing one.

Besides that, it is a comfortable theatre with good acoustics and moreover much possibility and more character than some Sydney theatres and concert halls. The architects have left the original iron columns of the train workshop along the wings of the stage, and Rosas integrated these into their performances. The back wall  of the stage was also opened up at the end of Cesena to reveal the chain link fences and industrial detritus outside, and used this gap in the wall to exit. En Atendant and Cesena were created for the 2010 and 2011 Avignon festivals respectively, first performed in the Cour d’Honneur in the Papal Palace, where much of the music was written, at dawn and dusk. Then last year La Monnaie brought both pieces to Rosas’ native Belgium to be danced among the ruins of the Abbaye de Villers-la-Ville, again at dawn and dusk. In this latest performance, de Keersmaeker has adapted the pieces to an indoor theatre in the industrial ruins of inner south Sydney with care, even if we have lost the effect of natural lighting. It was a wonderful opportunity to see the diptych all together and the Sydney Biennale organizers deserve praise for branching out into dance, with the same success they bring to the art exhibits on Cockatoo Island and the mainland museums. Perhaps one day we will have a whole Sydney Biennale of Dance to complement the ambitious visual art Biennale, which would offer a different tone than the usual summer festivals.


See also Altogether Now: the 18th Biennale of Sydney

About the author

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller lives in Sydney and writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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