Listening in the Dark
The Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker is 55, but in some ways she still looks like a girl, slender, sinewy, quick and light on her feet. But then, when she was younger she looked middle aged. She’s never been one to smile much; her hooded eyes stare out at the world diffidently, keeping it at a distance. This mix of girlish precocity and schoolmarmish severity is her signature. In Rosas Danst Rosas (1983), perhaps her most famous piece, four young women in leggings – and sensible shoes – glared and slouched and smoothed their hair like provocative schoolgirls in detention. There is a whiff of that attitude in all her dances.
De Keersmaeker is back in New York this week; this time she is performing a seventy-minute duet, Partita 2, with the somewhat younger French dancer/choreographer Boris Charmatz. (It is being presented by the White Light Festival.) The two met in 2011 at the Avignon Festival and began improvising together. Out of this exchange emerged Partita 2, a response to Bach’s Partita in D minor for solo violin. Like her recent Cesena and En Atendant, Partita 2 is very much about the experience of listening.
The piece begins in the dark, as did Cesena. A violinist, Amandine Beyer, walks onstage and begins to play. Deprived of other stimuli – except for the inevitable ringing of a cell phone – the audience becomes intensely aware of the texture and sound of the notes; they acquire an almost tactile quality. I found myself wanting to close my eyes in order to block out even the glow of the exit signs. How often do we allow ourselves the pleasure of listening closely, without distractions, like we did when we were kids, lying on the floor wearing a pair of headphones? The scrape of the bow against the strings, the resonance of the wooden instrument, the tension before a harmonic resolution, become monumental.
Then, suddenly, in the middle of the chaconne, the violinist stops playing and walks off. We see a square of light. Keersmaeker and Charmatz come on, dressed casually, wearing sneakers with bright pink laces. He’s tall and thin, rather gawky; she’s small and tightly wound, her hair pulled back with almost painful severity. In silence, they start to move, slipping in and out of unison, side by side or one slightly behind the other. They run and skip and spin and hop. The steps are simple, executed casually. Charmatz is messy and loose-limbed; for some reason he makes me think of a puppy, despite his size. She’s precise and efficient, though not exactly what one could call graceful. (Beauty is not the point.) Once in a while he, or she, emits a sound, a whistle or a murmur. Later they hum a fragment of a melody. At several points she slips her hands between her legs, a gesture both strange and frankly sexual. For all her asceticism, De Keersmaeker is anything but prim; pleasure is part of the equation, but only on her terms.
After a period of silence, the violinist returns and starts over. The dancing acquires a new dimension; emotion creeps in, and we become aware of the existence of an underlying structure in what seemed chaotic and random. Small gestures – a hand on the neck or an arm around the waist – now suggest deeper meanings: despair, companionship, perhaps attraction. At one point, a shadow of a smile appears on De Keersmaeker’s face. The music courses through the two dancers’ bodies, colors their movement.
Each dancer takes on a section of the partita, tracing patterns around the violinist, until finally, the two come together. In the chaconne, the patterns begin to repeat more deliberately; we become aware that we’ve seen all this material before. For all its air of casualness, everything is pre-planned. There is a very Trisha Brown-like passage in which the two dancers cantilever their weight so that one walks horizontally, resting on the ground, while the other walks upright. Like a see-saw, one goes up, the other goes down. The humming returns, too; now it harmonizes with the violin, creating a new layer in the music.
If all this sounds rather dry: it is. But at the same time, there is something almost moving about the devotion (and intelligence) with which De Keersmaeker responds to the music, the artlessness of the steps, the mixture of rigor and casualness. The dancing in Partita 2 is really a form of listening. It is an attempt to feel, through the body, the purity and transcendence of sound.