Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Rosas danst Rosas, photo by Jean-Luc Tanghe
Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker stepped on stage last Saturday night to accept a lifetime achievement award from the American Dance Festival. A few minutes later, the 51-year-old Belgian choreographer was back to perform – unbilled – in her demanding signature work, Rosas danst Rosas. One of the dancers from her company was apparently sick. It was also De Keersmaeker’s birthday. Was her appearance a present to herself or was she pressed into service? No matter.
Though De Keersmaeker didn’t move as intensely as the other three performers at the Reynolds Industries Theater in Durham, N.C., the piece would’ve looked differently than during its U.S. premiere 25 years ago anyway. Time and the march of dance history have a way of changing perceptions.
By 1983, when she made Rosas danst Rosas shortly after forming her company in Brussels, De Keersmaeker had absorbed the previous quarter century of New York postmodern style (she attended NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1981-82), especially the mathematical repetition employed by some of the Judson Church choreographers of the 1960s.
I was running late (as usual) to a 1986 matinee performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where De Keersmaeker’s fledgling Rosas troupe was about to become the sensation of BAM’s Next Wave Festival. The 550-seat Lepercq Space upstairs, with its general admission seating, was already packed, and I was going to end up at the top of the risers…until I spotted an empty single in the sixth row and couldn’t believe it was available.
All I knew about Rosas danst Rosas at the time was that it was supposed to be “punky” and would last 90 to 100 minutes without an intermission. And it lived up to the billing: four young women forcefully gesturing in precisely timed patterns in a kind of feminist shorthand that transcribed the vagaries of modern existence.
There was not a dancerly moment in sight, only what used to be called “everyday” or “pedestrian” movement: nods of acknowledgment between the quartet, crumples to the floor, stomach and breast grabs, often synchronized or staggered in cannon, with ever evolving but subtle variations you could easily follow. The heart of the piece found the dancers mingling wild and languid gestures while sitting in or lying on school chairs set up in parallel rows at about a 45-degree angle to the audience.
Despite this mechanical relentlessness, driven hard by Thierry De Mey and Peter Vermeersch’s loud, pounding, clock-like soundtrack – the industrial age on fire – Rosas danst Rosas wasn’t pedestrian at all. Instead, its visceral thrills startled, to the point where I haven’t stopped talking about the work since. I know now that my dance education began that afternoon in Brooklyn – I hadn’t seen half a dozen performances at that point. What I didn’t realize until witnessing the piece again last weekend is it’s the perfect beginning for anyone’s.
With the stunning surprise factor out of the way, the simple vocabulary and rigorous structure of Rosas danst Rosas came to the fore – a textbook lesson in how to build choreography.
Photo by Michiel Hendryckx
“You set up a logic in the beginning of those pieces and that logic is regularly followed,” De Keersmaeker says of her early work in an interview with Sadler’s Wells available on the London venue’s iPhone app. “They’re not sweetened up. There’s a very high sense of taking movement seriously and not putting fuzz around it, not hiding things, so that can seem a little bit harsh. But they’re not about entertaining, that’s for sure.”
She also discusses how those first dances reflected where she was in her own learning curve. “They’re small scale…They’re made not with a lot of craftsmanship, because at the very beginning I didn’t have that much craftsmanship.” Instead, she says, the pieces have “intellectual and emotional conviction” and “very strong physicality…They made their reputation by being very mathematical and distant but I actually think they’re very passionate pieces…They’re full of intensity, and they’re very well constructed.”