Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker | Rosas
London, Sadler’s Wells
8 November 2012
Cesena begins just where its prequel, En Atendant (performed at Sadler’s Wells earlier in the week – review) signed off, with a barely-visible, yet clearly naked man circling the stage in darkness. But, it also starts as the earlier work had done with this solitary man coming to stand at the front of the stage demonstrating remarkable breathing technique. In En Atendant, it was the circular breathing of a flautist that enabled him to sustain a continuous sound for several minutes: here, the naked man was like a tribal shaman yelling out a ritualistic clarion call to begin the day, bending his knees to wheeze in breath while still pushing out the unending noise. Apart from the lack of instrument, the difference between the commencement of these two works was all about the light, since the first was about the brightness of day gradually turning to night whereas Cesena begins in darkness, just as the dawn is about to break.
The other major distinction between the pair is that in En Atendant the trio of musicians was very much an adjunct to the performance, whereas here the singers of graindelavoix (a performance art collective, formed in 1999 by Björn Schmelzer, who served as musical director for both works) are inseparable from the dancers of Rosas. They combined to form an interoperable ensemble of nineteen performers who sang and moved as one. Nonetheless the rich dramatic coloratura soprano of Olalla Alemán was the most stunning element of the performance throughout and she was well matched by two countertenors, one of whom, Yves Van Handenhove, had an especially penetrating vocal strength.
As in En Atendant, Carlos Garbin was a pivotal central presence in the Rosas crew. A tall, gaunt beardy-baldy guy, this Brazilian dancer seems to be the arbiter of all activity: the monitor, the conductor and the priest. Garbin wears a jacket that is regularly removed and then put back on; he sings and he conducts the others, beating time with his left hand. There are many references to the bubonic plague, including a man walking on his knees as if they are post-amputation stumps; lifeless bodies occasionally being carried and dumped; one member of graindelavoix is roughly pushed off the stage; and Chrysa Parkinson performs a floor-based solo before having her lifeless limbs rearranged into positions that seem to replicate aspects of her earlier dance.
The starkness of this plague-ridden place is counterbalanced by isolated moments of play, including a sequence that could have been any school playground game of tag. But, as we are drawn into the game, one man becomes especially aggressive, stamping loudly and kicking others out of the way. This man wears a dress, as does at least one other, but there are only three women amongst the 19-strong cast and one of these, Marie Goudot, finishes with a haunting solo that drifts and twists through the bare stage like a spiralling twig caught in the breeze.
Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s diptych – hinged by the night – is a paean to medievalism which emphasises the crucial aspects of those times. The vital importance of daylight coupled with the austerity of a life that always hung in the balance awaiting that fateful fleabite; and yet this stark reality is juxtaposed with the creation of such beautiful music (and, if this had been seen in its original setting of the Pope’s Palace in Avignon we could add, magnificent architecture). Day becomes night; night becomes day; dancers sing; singers dance; a line of clay becomes a circle of sand.
The ensemble sings a virtuous Kyrie eleison, strung out on a long diagonal line across the stage, before moving forward to stare out at the audience, still singing, and we note again that one man is menacingly hooded, arms folded, legs splayed wide open in an aggressive stance. Violence is never far away, even during the chanting of a prayer.
During the 14th century the Northern Italian city of Cesena was the site of a bloody massacre where as many as 5,000 civilians were murdered by the papal legate. Barbarism in the name of religious devotion is just the first of many contradictions and opposites that help to unravel a strong sense of logic from these apparently aimless routines. We often speak of divine light, but De Keersmaeker has somehow made this spiritual quality tangible, even when fettered by the bland artificial fluorescent tubes of this theatre replacing the warm glow of natural light falling on stone walls in an Avignon courtyard. It is a sometimes chilling but ultimately uplifting experience.