Admired and reviled, the choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker polarises her audiences – and her own work. In one piece, she might go for pure dance, its movement anchored in its musical forms; in the next, she'll swing the opposite way, for dance theatre of the most extreme kind, where text often replaces music – and action, dance steps.
As resident choreographer of Belgium's national opera house, the Théàtre de la Monnaie, she and her group Rosas head a Belgian dance scene whose exhilarating vigour is out of all proportion to the country's size. Abroad, De Keersmaeker appears courtesy of festivals such as the UK's Dance Umbrella, which has been her loyal presenter throughout her 20-year catalogue of excesses and successes.
In London last year, she irritated even her fans with I said I, a hysterical rant dressed as dance theatre. This year, true to her creative swingometer, she brings Rain, a pure dance piece that launches 10 dancers in washes of movement, eddies, spirals and lines that advance, froth like surf and dissolve. But there's pure dance – and pure dance. With Rain, De Keersmaeker invokes the minimalist patterning of both her early work and Steve Reich's accompanying Music for 18 Musicians, dappled notes forming a dense mosaic floor-plan for the dance. But, as in earlier work, she adds more human and emotional layers.
She does this by constant subversion. On a superficially structural level, this means that order fragments into disorder, or – looking at it the other way – disorder throws up images of order. So, for example, a calm group might scatter, suddenly disrupted by an internal disturbance, as if a stone, falling in water, was causing ripples; or dancers might suddenly gel into unison, their sensational group formations emerging out of apparent chaos; or some random individuals might, apparently by telepathy, simultaneously shape themselves into an identical motif, their repeated silhouettes crystallising against the amorphous mass. But there is a deeper level of subversion that takes the form of anarchic incidents, such as one dancer kicking or head-butting another, or couples coming together in intense moments of mutual recognition.
In this way, De Keersmaeker manages to match the music's 70-minute continuum and ambitious scale, yet avoids its monotony. Just listening, you would hear a ceaseless stream of sound – now faster, now slower, now with different instrumentation – but all like a uniform monsoon backdrop. But watching as well, you would find choreography that is vividly theatrical and full of opposing tensions.
Jan Versweyveld's lighting saturates the stage with translucent pastels that shimmer like water reflected on a white wall. His decor of hanging ropes resembles a curtain of rain, transforming the stage into a semicircle. The dancers run behind this, veer abruptly to break through, and rush towards the audience in one of the piece's spectacular group formations. A simple device, yet it rivets you to your seat.
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