The Beautiful, Serious Game
De Keersmaeker’s Mitten Wir in Leben Sind has just finished a run at the Skirball Center for the Arts at NYU. The title, which comes from a Lutheran hymn, means “in the midst of life we are in death,” a suitable title for De Keersmaeker’s rather spare, sometimes even severe work. We’re always aware of her dancers as human beings, made of flesh, destined, like all of us, for the grave. What the title doesn’t account for, however, is the soul-elevating feel of the music, Bach’s cello suites, played with great sensitivity and directness by the wonderful French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras. He’s a benevolent, rapt presence throughout the piece, sitting in a chair at various spots onstage, facing away, or toward the audience. For a long stretch, he seems to play to his own shadow, projected against one of the walls of the theater.
The dance is spare and pedestrian, as is De Keersmaeker’s way, and lasts two hours, without intermission. And yet it’s not really a challenge to experience it all in one sitting. The music washes over you, and if you’re momentarily tired of the dancing, you can close your eyes and lose yourself in Bach’s phrasing, the subtle shifts of tempo, the way the notes themselves dance through the air.
Five dancers walk and fall and reach and turn, and sometimes jump, across and through the cascades of notes. De Keersmaeker is one of them, by turns girlish and dour in a black dress that reveals a great expanse of her left leg and back. She moves with extreme precision, her fingers plucking invisible flowers out of the air, hand and arms drawing lines that eventually pull her across the space, with increasing and decreasing momentum. The naturalness and lack of resistance in the movement reminds me of Trisha Brown.
Each dancer is given a suite, with De Keersmaeker coming and going throughout the evening, each entrance an almost casual interruption. All five join in the ending, in which they run and walk, in clumps, drawing circles and arcs across the stage. They seem like old friends. De Keersmaeker and Marie Goudot exchange little glances, as if sharing a joke, or encouraging each other to start a new phrase. They also touch, very slightly, with just the tips of their fingers. De Keersmaeker also entrusts Boštjan Antončič, a giant who has been dancing with her since 2005, with her full weight, allowing him to carry and handle her almost as if she were a rag doll.
They all have different ways of manoeuvring through the music. Goudot is quick and incisive, her movements strongly accented and full of sharp contrasts. Her face is illuminated, eyes open, as if awaiting some revelation. Michaël Pomero has the calm presence of a sage and the large, powerful hands of a hero-worker in a Socialist Realist poster. There is something almost political about the plainness of De Keersmaker’s vocabulary of repeated falls and runs and kicks. Many times, I’m reminded, strangely, of the grace of soccer players dribbling a ball or careening across a soccer field.
Music, the freedom of sport, the feel of air on skin, interspersed with occasional bouts of dullness and distraction. They’re all part of De Keersmaeker’s beautiful game.