Music and dance: an age-old relationship. More often that not, however, the dance comes after the music, the choreography subservient to the musical structure, moulded and shaped by it. It is rare therefore to find a musical work that has been composed specifically for a particular choreography: Counter Phrases is such a rare case.  

A formidable influence for over 30 years, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s choreography has become representative of an art going beyond its perceived bounds, completely rethinking the innate traditions. It is unsurprising that De Keersmaeker and Steve Reich have, over the years, bonded artistically, creating on several occasions works that explore both the musical and rhythmic but also physical domains, going beyond the mere constraints of “music and dance”. Created in 2003, Counter Phrases is the result of a collaboration between Reich, De Keersmaeker and the musician/cinematographer Thierry De Mey, aiming to reverse the traditional subservience to the music by offering a dance choreography filmed by De Mey to a selection of composers, in the hopes of creating an artistic dialogue between the music, dance and film. These composers included Steve Reich, Fausto Romitelli, Robin De Raaff, Jonathan Harvey, Luca Francesconi, Thierry De Mey, and even the famous kora-player Ballaké Sissoko: on paper, a fascinating project to say the least.

Though greeted by a disappointingly small crowd, the Mulhouse Symphony Orchestra and its conductor Laurent Cuniot seemed eager nonetheless to get under way. Full of frantic textures and almost visceral harmonies, De Raaff’s opening movement, “Orphic Descent”, seemed immediately at odds with the smoother, more graceful gestures and movements from the dancers on the screen. Although De Keersmaeker’s choreography is more energetic and unpredictable than “pretty” or “classical”, the musical connection felt nonetheless hard to accept. Unfortunately, this was the case with the more contemporary works, such as those by Jonathan Harvey and Luca Francesconi, accompanying De Keersmaeker’s choreography with sharp, uncomforting atonal music. Though in any other context, such music has its place like any other, when accompanying graceful dancers performing a minimalist dance choreography in sunny fields of grass or in forests, the combination feels entirely odd. Whilst reading previous interviews with the composers, many admitted to having switched off the film, focusing instead simply on the breathing of the dancers (a sound unfortunately barely audible during the concert) or the pace of the dancers' footsteps. De Raaff, for example, was more inspired by the physical descent of a staircase by the dancer, evoking for him Orpheus' own hellish descent, than the dancing itself. A shame that one third of the artistic material was seemingly ignored, or at least made secondary.

Whilst it is unsurprising that Reich's work blended comfortably with De Keersmaeker's choreography (the two artists have a great deal of experience together), more surprising were those by Ballaké Sissoko: the sensual and often passionate movements on-screen blended nicely with Sissoko’s warm and exotic African timbres. Disappointingly, the orchestra was not included in any of Sissoko’s works, creating an almost jarring transition from one movement to the next, from the contemporary discords and atonality to the more traditional African timbres, and vice versa. Though Counter Phrases based itself on the ideal of creating an equal unison between dance, music, and film, it is a shame that no efforts were made to bring this idea of equal cohesion to the music itself. It is disappointing to think that something far more intriguing and interesting could have been made had these two ensembles been brought together, rather than simply alternating between works. Though it could be argued that this is was furthering the notion of "dialogue", the lack of any cohesion between the different voices negates this somewhat. The only occasion on which such alternation proved interesting was when two different composers (such as Sissoko and Reich) were given the same filmed choreography, thus resulting in two entirely unique moods surrounding the same choreography, proving that music can and truly does impact the mood and overall perception of the context to which it is applied.

General criticisms aside, the performance by the Mulhouse Symphony Orchestra and Sissoko’s ensemble cannot be faulted. The emotions put forth by the composers were truthfully interpreted by the musicians, and though it can be said that these emotions were at odds with the movements on screen, they made themselves nonetheless felt. Ultimately, whilst it cannot be denied that Counter Phrases is an interesting work, full of food for thought and material to consider, it leaves one rather perplexed as to how the music and De Keersmaeker's and De Mey's work is supposed to mix; perhaps the lack of subservience between the artistic forms removes in turn any tangible connection between them.