A conversation with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker on "Rosas danst Rosas"
The virtuosity of the mundane
Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker in an interview by Floor Keersmaekers.
Rosas danst Rosas is – besides Fase – the only piece from your early career period which has seen constant retakes throughout the years. Surely, there must be a personal reason for this. What motivated you to once more bring this choreography to the stage?
It is indeed true that Rosas danst Rosas is the only piece that we have continued to dance over 35 years of choreographic work, now spanning several generations of dancers. Together with Fase, Rosas danst Rosas was a piece which set me going on a particular choreographic track, allowing me to draw creative contours and develop my own choreographic vocabulary. In spite of obvious traces of the ‘80s spirit’ found in the choreography's, its essence has turned out to possess a more lasting value.
The idea to continue performing this repertoire started with the Rosas residence at De Munt. Last year, the idea was revived when we decided to introduce the repertoire to a new group of dancers in the Rosas-company itself. Meanwhile, this new group has started touring with Rain, recently also premièring A Love Supreme.
I care deeply about keeping alive the historical memory of contemporary dance. To an extent, one can do this way of archival books and films, but live performances, I think, remain the most fruitful way to do it – not only for the new generations of dancers and choreographers, but also for the audience worldwide. Ever since something like YouTube has arrived on the scene, contemporary dance has found its way to much larger audiences. Yet this form of transmission still doesn't compare to the simple, authentic experience of a live performance, in which spectator and artists share the space-time of a live performance. There can be no dance without the body.
How do you yourself explain the popularity of Rosas danst Rosas? Re:Rosas, for instance, can be considered a veritable success.
There are different aspects worth emphasising when discussing the legacy of Fase and Rosas danst Rosas. What is specific to these performances, I think, is above all a great structural rigour, that one could at times typify as almost mathematical. It is to the contrast of this rigour with a fierce physicality to which the piece owes its effectivity – call it the ‘virtuosity of the mundane’. The movements are recognisably simplistic, yet each movement also has an immediate energetic nature to it, which sometimes even provokes kinetic response on behalf of the audience. After the performance, you sometimes see people trying to mimic the movements. “Maybe I can do it, too!”. Another crucial element, of course, is Thierry De Mey and Peter Vermeersch’ music, born out of such an unrelenting musical pulse that it simply invites dancing.
Generally, the audience also shows strong attraction to the stern portrait of women offered in the piece.
Originally, I tended to dismiss any suggestion of a feminist connotation as nonsense. Rosas danced Rosas, we thought, we just danced ourselves, simply from our own experience, not to make a general statement. However, it is true that the female body exerts an extremely strong presence in Rosas danst Rosas. That youthful, pronounced femininity has always left a strong impression with the audience, captivating some, while at the same time repulsing others. The performance doesn't seek to conjure up associations with mythological clichés such as the Amazon – although the dance is, indeed, quite combative – and it equally doesn't refer to the feminine notion of a delicate wallflower – in spite of the fact that the dance is, at times, an exercise in personal vulnerability. Rosas danst Rosas sings the praises of femininity, without ever ignoring or exploiting it by rendering it more masculine.
Few would disagree that it would be a rather odd decision to have male dancers perform Rosas danst Rosas. Do you share the impression that some men had to fight for their place in today’s world of dance?
From a historical perspective, it would be rather difficult to justify the claim that dance has always been an exclusively feminine activity throughout human history. One only has to look at the history of the different ethnic and ritual dances in the Global East and South. Compared to when I started, my work represents an equal share of male and female dancers. For instance: the rearrangement of A Love Supreme is now a tribute to the notion of a male dance. Originally, Salva Sanchis and I had originally conceived this work for two women and two men, but for the current version, we decided we no longer wanted to work with such a binary cast. The choreography, as it has now been rewritten, is both expressly and elegantly male. As such, it fits better with the tempestuous energy of the Coltrane Quartet.
In a recent interview discussing Re:Rosas , you postulated that Rosas danst Rosas is indeed based on a certain experience of femininity. Has that become less relevant a premise for your current work as a choreographer?
On a subconscious level, the feminine element has of course always played a role. A performance is always a reflection of your position in today’s world – as a person, a woman, a mother, a choreographer. Of course, over the course of 35 years, one continuously gains new experiences, new forms of craftsmanship, new modes of wisdom.
In the case of Rosas danst Rosas, we found ourselves in a fairly exceptional situation, given that music was written conjointly with the actual choreography. Thierry De Mey was somebody with whom I shared many artistic ideas; we found ourselves propelled by the same questions and artistic passions. For us both, the creative process has always been an investigative process as well – one that took place in close collaboration, in which we could seek out a score that reflected what was happening between us and the world. The same is true for the three other dancers that participated in the making Rosas danst Rosas: Adriana Borriello, Fumiyo Ikeda and Michèle Anne De Mey. We were “accomplices”, if you may, since we shared a similar intimacy.
The series premièring in June, will, once again, be danced by a new cast of dancers. When it comes to the rehearsal process, what do you believe constitutes the principal cause of a successful transfer between casts?
Casting itself is incredibly important. Dancers must possess both the right personality and technical skills. I always keep the original cast in the back of my mind during the casting process. In such a carefully structured and repetitive score as the one of Rosas danst Rosas, the difference between what is the ‘same’ and what is ‘different’ is of paramount importance. In the piece, most movements find themselves in a relentless loop, which also implies one will automatically start looking for the differences between the dancers. That's why I am delighted to have Fumiyo Ikeda leading the rehearsals – it is infinitely more valuable when a member of the original cast itself passes on her own experiences to a new set of dancers.
You often mention Fase and Rosas danst Rosas together, but while you continue to dance Fase yourself, you have definitively left Rosas danst Rosas to the next generation. Why?
In the case of Fase, and more particularly my solo Violin Phase, I must confess I’m quite reluctant when it comes to passing on the choreography to a later generation. Violin Phase truly is my own choreography, intimately connected to my identity as both a choreographer and a dancer. It is almost as if the movements were an extension of my body itself, – the way I perform the piece expresses a part of my innermost being. I'm fortunate enough that I’m still physically capable of performing the piece. I do truly enjoy dancing it – notwithstanding the fact I only do so on rare occasions – while, at the same time, the moment at which I'll have to lay it off is now drawing ever closer. Compared to Fase, another thing one has to bear in mind is that Rosas danst Rosas, as a piece, centers much more strongly on the theme of young women. Evidently, the things that interest you at 56 are quite different from the ones that concern you at 23.
Regardless of the fact that it has only been five years since you danced Rosas danst Rosas yourself.
That may be true. However, in the case of that particular retake, I myself was equally involved in facilitating the transition between different generations of dancers. This wasn’t truly the case with earlier retakes. It appeared easier to do a physical transfer of the material by simply joining in with the dance yourself. In doing so, one can also communicate aspects of the dance that don't necessarily relate to the movements, such as, for instance, the specific group dynamics which come with dance as a performative act.
Are there any more recent works of yours of which you believe they will still qualify for performances in a 30 years time?
I sincerely hope so. It’s definitely a question I haven't stopped thinking about. Some performances might reveal new qualities when undergoing a process of re-adaptation – it turns out that, sometimes, it is indeed beneficial to let an idea rest for a little while to subsequently commence work on it again, as if one started from a blank slate. With other pieces, one notices that the score has managed to retain its vibrancy. For instance: Rain was made with a specific set of dancers, all with a wide variety of personalities. When it was performed by the Paris Opera, the dancers of the ballet, who are classically trained, showed qualities that differed from those of Rosas. Nevertheless, the piece survived the transition. And now, a second, young Rosas generation has equally managed to acquaint itself with the choreography. A great number of them come from P.A.R.T.S., and their flourishing can be attributed to a combination of exceptional talent and a training programme focused heavily on contemporary dance. Their rendition of Rain has managed to bring some unknown characteristics to the surface that simply weren’t there with both the original cast or the Parisian one. I have never considered dance in general – and my own work in particular – a hermetically sealed activity. Rather, I see it as a living organism, which is in a continuous state of transformation.
Do you feel that, as a person, you are so thoroughly interwoven with your own choreographic work that you will continue to do it to the very last moment?
Oh! I’m afraid I don’t have a clear-cut answer to this question. Upon closer inspection, it might best to take the example of Anton Webern. He kept an enormous vegetable garden in Vienna, and, much like me, was enthused by the mountains, by the enormous, quiet architecture of the grey crevices and its ornamental white plains of snow. Scattered around those mountains, maybe some small specks of intense colour – a flower in deep violet, a slight flash of yellow. Who wouldn't want to spend the rest of their life in such a place?