by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal
The dance begins in silence. Four male dancers walk on stage in dim lighting. Dressed in black and dark blue casual clothing, they look as though they might have just wandered in off the street. The group begins to move as a unit — kneeling, leaning, holding and lifting one another. Their movement is angular, sometimes resembling martial arts, and punctuated by sudden bursts of swirling energy.
They stop dancing and stand looking at one another, waiting…thinking. Three of the dancers walk off stage, but one of them, Thomas Vantuycom, remains. He continues to walk, he remains pensive, and it goes on for quite a long time. Slowly he begins dancing, still in silence. Vantuycom is patient and calm — a commanding presence. He carves out expansive planes in space, all the while joining small, specific details to his movements. After this long solo, the opening strains of John Coltrane’s 1965 recording of A Love Supreme are heard. The other dancers (Jose Paulo dos Santos, Jason Respilieux, and Robin Haghi) return, and together they perform a soft, simple hand gesture that corresponds to the opening four-note base line of the music.
We were gathered together at FringeArts last Friday night to watch the group Rosas set in motion a dance with the same title as Coltrane’s ode to divine love. Created by the celebrated and intense Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, together with Salva Sanchis, a former member of her company Rosas, the dance is deeply rooted in translating the energy of the music into pure movement. The duo has reworked their 2005 piece, which Sanchis also danced in, for this new version that made its first stop on a limited US tour at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.
Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is a 33-minute musical journey that builds an improvisational and free-wheeling suite around a relatively simple musical idea. The album’s four musicians, Coltrane on tenor saxophone, McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Jimmy Garrison on bass, had been playing together for years before they made this landmark recording. In a 2012 interview on NPR, Tyner recalled, “We had reached a level where you could move the music around. John had a very wonderful way of being flexible with the music, flexing it, stretching it. You know, we reflected that kind of thing. He gave us the freedom to do that…And all that freedom just came together when we did that music.”
The challenge for choreographers De Keersmaeker and Sanchis is to embody that sense of freedom while mixing composed dance phrases with improvised flights of movement. Each of the four dancers is matched up with one of the four instruments, and the idea is that they should portray the distinct character and playing of each musician. The music and the movement are magnified — all of the other elements are stripped down. The lighting design is unobtrusive and basic, the stage is bare, the theater walls are exposed, and the costumes are every-day wear. Together with the natural feeling of the movement vocabulary, the sense of theatrical “staginess” is nowhere to be found.
As the musical suite moves through its four phases, the dancers take turns improvising in the foreground along with their respective solo instruments. First off, Vantuycom powerfully interprets Coltrane’s opening saxophone solo. What seemed angular in silence now appears full of flow when combined with the outpouring of musical notes. Respilieux and Haghi follow with bass and piano solos. Both bring a delightful attention to unexpected details (sometimes as subtle as a movement of the eyes) which are initiated from any part of the body. Dos Santos takes a joyful turn for a drum solo — his exuberant offering accented by small controlled catches such as the knock of head.
Against these solos, the other members of the group improvise mostly in the background. Their concentration and presence in the moment are clear as they play off one another, and their spatial relationships seem as important as their actual movements. The group is careful not to overtake the focus from the soloist, yet their interplay creates a rich kinesthetic environment, matching the bountiful complexity of the music. There are moments when they all come together and perform what appears to be composed material, but it’s hard to tell when they are improvising or not, because the dancing feels so easy and free flowing.
The music and dancing build to a torrent in the third section of the suite, and the energy becomes more expansive. As the movement passes freely from dancer to dancer, an endorphin rush takes over the proceedings. Yet even in this blissful state, the dancers keep their improvised movements grounded in the composed material. In other words, they don’t go wild doing anything they feel like, and this is what makes the experience deeply satisfying.
In the final phase, which Coltrane called “Psalms,” the dancers again perform the group dance that we first saw in silence at the very beginning. Now in the context of Coltrane’s steadfast incantation, the supportive power of the music brings it all together. The dancers lift one another up, and the spiritual significance is palpable.
De Keersmaeker has investigated the relationship between music and movement throughout her career as a choreographer. Indeed, she studied music in her youth before she took up dance in her late teens. Born in 1960, she studied at Maurice Bejart’s MUDRA school in Brussels in the 1970s, and then formed her own dance company, Rosas, in 1983. Their first piece, Rosas danst Rosas, drew immediate attention, and was notable for the unique way in which De Keersmaeker combined rigorous minimalism with expressive gesture.
FringeArts has been instrumental in bringing De Keersmaeker’s work to Philadelphia and thus providing an opportunity for audiences to see her remarkable musicianship and craft for ourselves. A revival of Rosas danst Rosas was presented in 2014; and a recent piece, Partita 2, a duet set for herself and Boris Charmatz, was presented in 2015. Set to Bach’s Partita No. 2 for solo violin, the ravishing dance played with the formal qualities of music and movement as separate entities, as well as how they can be combined to create something sublime. Thus, FringeArts has sampled the trajectory of her career through the early days of formal repetition to her subsequent expansion into choreographing dances intertwined with more complex musical scores.
With A Love Supreme De Keersmaeker adds the element of improvisation into the mix, and it is pure pleasure to see this dazzling choreographer continue to push into new territory.
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