Getting maximum out of the minimum

 

International arts festivals engage in what Pierre Bourdieu once referred to as cultural banking. The cultural banker collects symbolic capital and then redistributes it, so in the case of International Dance Festival Ireland it will borrow international symbolic capital from artists such as Mark Morris, Stephen Petronio and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and redistribute it within the Irish dance community, writes Michael Seaver

As a lender, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker is simply giving back what she herself borrowed over 20 years ago as a young choreographer in Flanders. In these early years self-legitimisation was vital as large ballet companies such as Maurice Béjart's Ballet of the Twentieth Century and Royal Ballet of Flanders overshadowed contemporary dance. What theorists call "glocalisation" was the tactic used: the Flemish choreographer aligned their work to genres already recognised internationally. In this De Keersmaeker, along with colleagues such as Wim Vandekeybus and Jan Fabre, looked west to American post-modern dance and east to Pina Bausch in Germany to borrow legitimacy.

Coincidentally, post-modernism was seeping into general arts practice in Flanders: Architects bOb Van Reeth and Robbrecht & Daem, composers Wim Mertens and Frederic Rzewski, writers Tom Lanoye and Dirk van Bastelaere and filmmakers such as the Theys brothers all emerged in the 1980s. Choreographers borrowed other symbolic capital from them and from the touring American dance companies of Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs and Robert Wilson and, together with the support of the Klapstuk Festival in Leuven and the bimonthly arts magazine Etcetera, managed to excite international producers in "the Flemish dance wave". The borrowers then became lenders.

Although ballet companies provided a negative point of reference for these choreographers to rebel against, De Keersmaeker still attended Béjart's Mudra school in Brussels.

"It was a very special place where people from all over the world came to study dance, theatre and music," she says. "But they all left after the school and never stayed in Brussels. Apart from one or two others, I was the only one who decided to stay."

After graduating she spent one year at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, where she met up with members of the Steve Reich Ensemble, and returned to Belgium with two movements of Fase, which evolved into a four-movement duet for herself and Michèle Anne De Mey. Set to Reich's early scores Clapping Music, Violin Fase, Come Out and Piano Fase, the choreography reveals a deep analysis of the music's structures, in contrast to the prevailing use of Reich's music as sonic wallpaper for movement.

Along with her next work Rosas danst Rosas (for her eponymous dance group) it contains the essence of her artistic make-up.

Rather like the spirals that are used as structural devices in her choreography, each new work seems to trace a larger circumference around the previous one, while the seminal creative impulse remains at the core. Central to this is her engagement with musical structures and dualities, which can be traced back to her rhythm lessons with the influential Fernand Schirren at Mudra.

"I've always been interested in searching and establishing different strategies in the relationship between dance and music, not just one strategy," she says. "In the 30 pieces I have made in the last 22 years there are many different relationships. Sometimes dance has been very close to the music and we would spend a lot of time around the table analysing the devices and parameters in the score."

The confidence gained from this deep reading of scores meant that she was fearless in choosing music to suit her dance. Anything from Purcell to Xenakis to folk music features in her work and she never opts for single movements of a work. It's all or nothing. But while choreographers like Mark Morris can slavishly follow a composer's structures and mirror musical devices in movement, De Keersmaeker scratches around a score at a much deeper level.

Together with close collaborator Thierry De Mey she has delved into rhythmic and numeric sequences, not just in his own music compositions such as Rosas danst Rosas, but in scores by composers such as Bach. In Toccata the dancers' spiral trajectories were created according to the proportions of the Golden Section and Fibonacci Series, mathematical devices used in Rain along with nine elements of Chinese Astrology.

"In Rain there are two basic phrases - a woman's phrase and a man's phrase - and the piece is constructed around all the possible variations. The phrases are mirrored and in retrograde in time and space, chopped up, pulled out, condensed, turned over, transposed to the floor, all kinds of things like this."

But Rain is in no way a piece of clinically analytical choreography, and like her other works it avoids the emptiness of minimalism. Her choreographic structure may be highly formulated but it is the emotional weight of the moving body that is continually to the forefront in her work. Early choreographic works with De Mey subverted minimalism by using music as a "wall that the dancers crash into" and created works that, in De Mey's own words, "became a glorification of the body as the ultimate resistance to numbers". The notion of getting the maximum out of the minimum prompted De Mey to set up the Maximalist! sextet to perform the music for Rosas and together they continued to explore how musical and formal order can be transgressed by the live dancing body.

In 1992 the director of La Monnaie in Brussels, Bernard Foccroulle, invited Rosas to succeed Mark Morris's controversial tenure as company-in-residence. While the young native contemporary company was a brave choice it also was illustrative of the credibility that De Keersmaeker had gained on the crest of the new Flemish dance wave. She set three demands that Foccroulle had to meet. "We wanted to be able to create new work with live music, develop a repertory that could be danced regularly and establish a school to train dancers."

PARTS (Performing Arts Research and Training Studios) was born in 1995 with De Keersmaeker as director. Seen as an artistic programme more than a school, the curriculum is based on De Keersmaeker's and other choreographers' practice. Housed in a converted factory near the centre of Brussels, the training programme receives applications from throughout the world and auditions take place throughout Europe and as far away as Johannesburg. (Inexplicably, an invitation from PARTS to hold auditions in Ireland earlier this year was passed over.)

Deputy director Theo Van Rompay insists that the successful applicants aren't necessarily judged on technique. "Of course, there needs to be a basic competency, but we are interested in people who we feel will grow as individuals and become thinking dancers," he says. In spite of the emphasis on the individual, discipline is important in the school. An overhanging corridor with windows overlooks studios so outsiders can observe every move and gesture and there is a belief that this external force of observation gets transformed into self-control and discipline. Every day the students receive a macrobiotic meal made with biodynamically-grown vegetables and cereals, intensifying the relationship between the students and their bodies.

Although closely associated with Rosas, PARTS is not a breeding ground for the company, and teachers may change from year to year as the curriculum is constantly reassessed and tweaked.

"I seriously underestimated the work, care and the continuous adventure the school continues to be," says De Keersmaeker, who juggles her role as director of the school and company. So why did she decide to add to her workload by creating Once, a solo for herself? "Two years ago we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the company and 20years ago I started out with Fase as a solo. So I thought that it would be good to close that circle with another solo. I had danced a duet, Small Hands, with Cynthia Loemij, but because she is with the company it can't be performed independently. [On the opening night of Rain at the Abbey she will perform Once in Haarlem]. And then there was this record by Joan Baez that I really wanted to work with."

Returning to the music of her teens seems appropriate. Her recent work shows less of the conceptual hardliner and more of an artist who has reached a point where she feels free to soften her tendencies and stray off self-imposed rules. The formulae and devices have been absorbed into her life and no longer demand attention.

"Time is becoming something very precious," she says in If And Only If Wonder, a book to celebrate Rosas's 20th anniversary. "I used to be much more one-track minded in my commitment to work. Now everything is planned three or four years in advance and I work on various projects simultaneously. It is already a kind of meditation exercise to say, for example 'Now from 4 p.m. until 6 p.m. I will rehearse and after that I will peel potatoes'. I then also try to be really engaged with those potatoes. That's a challenge. Maybe it's because of the arrival of children. In the past, I only had my work, but now I also want to be there for them. I want to get the maximum out of the minimum."

Rain will be performed at the Abbey Theatre on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. There will also be free screening of Rosas Danst Rosas, a film by Thierry de Mey, at Meeting House Square in Temple Bar on Friday at 10 p.m.