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Dancers create spiralling, flowing patterns in Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Vortex Temporum at the Sydney Festival. Courtesy of the Sydney Festival.

Spirals within spirals: Vortex Temporum at the Sydney Festival

The music-dance relationship has provided the backbone for the development of Western theatre dance and has been the testing ground for most of the creative experiments that have revolutionised the form.

Whether dance follows music, music follows dance, or any other variation between the two, the role played by music has been central to the relatively young art form of contemporary dance.

Flemish choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker continues her explorations at the far side of the music and dance dialogue in Vortex Temporum, which is part of the 2016 Sydney Festival.

Vortex Temporum, which translates as “the whirlpool of times”, is a performance by seven contemporary dancers, six musicians and a conductor. They are present onstage at different times and in varying combinations throughout the work’s 60-minute duration.

There is a repetition of circles of different scales that “map” the performance space, traced through De Keersmaeker’s signature, simple movements – walking, running, turning and swinging. The energy of the dancers ebbs and flows, and scatters across dancers and the space.

The show works with a 1996 score of the same name by spectral composer Gérard Grisey, performed live by Belgian contemporary music ensemble Ictus.

A slow, deliberate composition

I was lucky enough to see this work in development in 2013 in Brussels and the delicate work of composition that De Keersmaeker undertakes.

In engaging with Vortex Temporum’s score for piano and five instruments, De Keersmaeker works with the space-time of Grisey’s vortex where a range of temporalities – frenetic, extended, suspended – co-exist, one inside the other.

In their purpose-built dance studio, Rosas (De Keersmaeker’s company) began the day’s work with a “tenor”, or key, phrase of movement in a standing position that worked within a virtual “magic square” from the Chinese divination text, I Ching. The square surrounded the dancers’ bodies and they swivelled with their arms swinging around them to take in all of its points.

From this original phrase, “generations” of movement devised by the dancers began unfolding a complex movement score across bodies, musical instruments, space and time. This traced three layers of circles on the floor and transposed the magic square across these, moving through zones or “houses” mapped across the whole. Spirals within spirals scaffold the work but are present as barely visible forces in the final work.

Each of the seven highly experienced dancers was allocated an instrument – five individual instruments plus a “double” voice for the two hands of the piano – and they moved constantly between the studio floor and a large table to consult Grisey’s manuscript. Progress was incredibly slow as the company unpacked the music and made collective choices. (I was told that one-and-a-half minutes of a 19-minute section took two weeks.)

De Keersmarker worked closely with Grisey’s experimental musical score. Image courtesy of the Sydney Festival.

During this process, De Keersmaeker worked with “musical dramaturg” Bojana Cvejić, with whom she has co-authored her books. Cvejić explained to the company the descriptives in Grisey’s score regarding the experimental use of the instruments required, and what this means in terms of the musicians’ physical performance. There was also much discussion about the place of movement and stillness against the score, being in front of or behind the music, and “spatial flow”.

Dancing to the un-danceable

De Keersmaeker’s approach to working with music is unique and radical within the history of contemporary dance, an art form that developed across the 20th century after breaking with classical ballet.

She chooses music that almost defies choreographic interpretation (an approach taken by other radicals such as Isadora Duncan who was the first to dance to Schubert and Chopin) and gets inside the logic of the music, matching it with her choreographic composition.

Her interest in the polyphonic, discordant “ars subtilior” choral music of the 14th century featured in her works toured to Sydney in 2012, En Atendant (2010) and Cesena (2011). The body’s role in producing the music of this vocal form led her to Grisey with his focus on the micro-tonalities of sound itself – its texture, timbre and tone.

These aspects of sound have a materiality (force, energy, weight, depth) that highlights the body in the music and evokes a physicality that dance can respond to.

De Keersmaeker includes the musicians in her choreography, so that they move through and with the dance, suggesting their musical performance is close to De Keersmaeker when she thinks with the score.

Six musicians interact closely with the dancers. Image courtesy of the Sydney Festival.

De Keersmaeker’s broad interest is between the body or the personal, and the community or structure. A tension between individual expression and the collective binds all of her work together, with compelling solos puncturing the mass movements of her large casts. This theme of De Keersmaeker’s reflects her process; she credits her company in programs – “created with and performed by the dancers”.

Her aesthetic has been pegged as “minimalist” in response to the reduction, utility and repetition that marked her breakthrough works Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich (1982), which is also being presented in the Sydney Festival this January. She has claimed to be most interested in “maximising the minimal”.

However, even in her most ascetic works, the dancers infuse the movement with an emotional charge that is all but absent from other minimalist classics, such as Danse (1979) by Lucinda Childs.

Ultimately, through a close attention to the work of the music and the application of formal structures and patterns to movement and stasis, De Keersmaeker approaches a new music-dance relationship beautifully translated by Cvejić:

by means of what techne [art] does the choreography seem not to choose the music but be chosen by it?

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker joins Erin Brannigan in conversation at Carriageworks in Sydney on on Tuesday, February 12. Entry is free, details here.

Temporal Vortex opens at the Sydney Festival on Friday, January 15. Details here.

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