Q&A: Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker

The groundbreaking choreographer presents four early works at Lincoln Center Festival

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What was your state of mind? As a choreographer, were you creating as a way to perform yourself as a vehicle for your dancing? Or were you really interested in the craft of choreography?
I was really interested in creating my own language. Physically, I liked to spend a lot of time alone in the studio, experimenting and searching for a way of moving that I liked. Mainly, my training had been ballet and Graham. 

Can you elaborate about what you were working on in the studio with Fase or the relationship among the early works?

They were pieces with small groups of people; it was really about establishing the language and finding out what kind of dance I wanted to create. Fase was the challenge of answering the musical procedures of Steve Reich. The minimalism was a very good starting point for me, because it supported me by rigorous structures—it was music that was carried by pulse, and structures that worked with very few elements. Not very elaborate and with nearly mathematical logical procedures, but at the same time, it had a physicality, which was extremely inviting to dance. So I could literally build something up step by step. I spent a lot of time alone in the studio and worked layer by layer. Slowly. Fase was in the springtime, and it has a lot of springlike energy, and then the year afterward came Rosas danst Rosas, which has a similar kind of abstraction as Fase, but it’s a quartet for four women, and there is more explicit female vocabulary based on the working experience of certain intimacies among those four women. It’s like a hidden secret narrative carried by the dramaturgy of those pieces. In Rosas danst Rosas, the music was composed with the movement. It was a collaboration with Thierry De Mey where we worked on minimal, repetitive structures, but it also had extremely intense energy and, therefore, physical drive. And there was a slight touch of maybe melodrama coming in. It was also more elaborate: I was working on counterpoint and duration, but the repetition was clearly very different from American minimalism that rightly or wrongly suggested distance and a certain notion of coldness. Here, you had four young women who sort of threw themselves physically against a wall of structure. There was that clash between intense physicality and a certain kind of femininity. But it was also the ’80s, the time of the punk movement, so there was a combination of very rigorous structure and a sense of anarchy, which was specific or unseen at that point. As much as Rosas danst Rosas was the summer and had this kind of jubilatory element, Elena’s Aria was turning inside. It was the absence of music, posing the question: How do you dance when you actually don’t want to dance? This was the first time with text coming in. There is a different kind of theatricality. It’s also explicitly feminine.

How so?
It’s five women. There is a lot of silence. As much as Rosas danst Rosas is energetic, in Elena’s Aria, there’s the slowness, the absence, the immobility, the notion of waiting, and through the presence of the text and the music, which serves a totally different strategy here, the music has a totally different function. And the last piece, Bartók, which is again with women, is a quartet based on Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4. That proposed the challenge of counterpoint and trying to obtain maximum intensity with relatively few means. The fourth string quartet of Bartók is the most dissonant; it is based on his study of Balkan music and of folk-dance music. The challenge was how do you let the dancing qualities that are in that music emerge? 

Earlier you spoke about what kind of dance you wanted to create. What didn’t you want to create? What were you reacting against?
I was not specifically reacting against anything. It was clear to me when I was at Mudra that I wanted to go a different way than the direction of somebody like Maurice Béjart, but I never had a problem with tradition. It has mainly been a source of inspiration.

When you moved to New York, you said you attended performances by the so-called avant-garde and some Broadway. Do you recall anything important?
For a European girl, if you’re not coming from London, this culture of musical comedy was a discovery. I didn’t know about that. It was really linked to the history of America, and the merging of theater and dance and entertainment made on a very high scale really impressed me. In Belgium, we don’t know that notion of popular, large-scale entertainment.

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