De Keersmaeker’s Fase: a minimalist touchstone

by Jane Fries For The Dance Journal | photo credit Anne Van Aerschot

Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s seminal Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich proved as highly charged as ever in a full-house, three-night run at FringeArts over the past weekend (September 12-14, 2019). De Keersmaeker created the dance in 1982 – it was the first work of her storied almost forty-year career – and she has danced in it herself until recently. The rigorous Fase is composed of four distinct movements, three duets, and one solo; it was interpreted by two French-born dancers, Laura Bachman, and Soa Ratsifandrihana.

The piece begins with “Piano Phase,” set to Reich’s minimalist composition of the same name. The dancers acknowledge each other with a brief nod, and then begin a formal, spinning pattern that continues relentlessly for the next fifteen or so minutes. They move in perfect unison at first, before they begin subtlety shifting the timing of their repetitive phrases. They appear school-girlish, wearing plain, calf-length white dresses and clunky sneakers, but they swing their arms with business-like precision. The hard is mixed with the soft, however, as their slashing movements are interspersed with fleeting lyrical gestures.

The two dancers are seated on stools in a downstage corner for the second movement, “Come Out.” Here the dance becomes darker as the dancers jerk their heads up, exposing their necks to the audience. They throw their upper bodies forward over their knees and make noises by slapping their thighs – all the while shifting in and out of unison and turning around on the stools. It feels like an inescapable nightmare, with the emotional intensity arising from the repetition and rhythm.

Dancing solo, Ratsifandrihana, is barely visible, moving in darkness, as the third movement, “Violin Phase,” begins. Gradually, light shines down from above, marking a circle on the floor. Ratsifandrihana traces the perimeter of the circle; swinging her arms out as she turns, then allowing them to wrap around her torso when she suddenly stops. She’s engaged in a private endeavor, only looking up near the end to take in the audience.

Fase concludes with “Clapping Music,” the shortest and most formally gripping of the work’s four movements. The two dancers are lined-up in profile; hopping up and down while swinging their arms like clock pendulums. Transitioning in and out of synch with each other, they punctuate their wound-up motion with sudden stops, balancing on the tips of their toes. They travel downstage diagonally in this fashion, at last coming to rest in a rectangular pool of light that’s been waiting for them to arrive. The well-defined lighting design by Remon Fromont adds another layer of structure to the choreography.

Ratsifandrihana and Bachman dance with astounding precision throughout the piece’s four sections. Although distinct in personal appearance, they are almost identical in the execution of the movement. But the harder you look, the more you see their individual differences – together in Fase, they embody the subtle complexities underpinning De Keersmaeker’s repetitive and minimalist motifs.

About Jane Fries

Originally from the west coast, Jane Fries pursued undergraduate studies in dance at San Diego State University, where she got her start writing about dance for the student newspaper. After an escapade as a correspondent for Dance Magazine in the south of France, she went on to earn her MA in dance from Mills College in Oakland, California. Jane's subsequent explorations in non-theatrical dance forms led her to take up the practice of yoga. She has lived in the Philadelphia area since 1996, and has had the great pleasure to study Iyengar yoga with Joan White. Jane's writing reflects her background in dance history and interest in documentation and preservation.

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