A classic, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Fase opened the month-long event series What the Body Remembers on dance heritage today. Mainly taking place at the Akademie der Künste, the series including an exhibition, a retrospective on Xavier Le Roy at Hamburger Bahnhof, the museum for contemporary art, talks, symposiums, several evenings of reconstructions and discussions, and masterclasses is a triad collaboration between AdK, the museum and the dance festival Tanz im August in cooperation with DIEHL+RITTER and the German Federal Cultural Foundation, and is funded by the Federal Agency for Civic Education (bpb) and the Institut Français Germany.

<i>Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich</i>, 2018 © Anne Van Aerschot
Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich, 2018
© Anne Van Aerschot

The series is basically a feast for dance history nerds, with reconstructions of earlier works by expressionist choreographers such as Isadora Duncan, Rudolf von Laban, Mary Wigman, Valeska Gert, and Anita Berber and later works by contemporary choreographers such as Merce Cunningham, Tatsumi Hijikata, de Keersmaeker and le Roy. It offers the chance to see early works generally difficult to access with almost no video documentation and other fragmented sources scattered throughout Germany among the three dance archives who battle against the ephemerality of the art form, the losses during the war, and disinterest in preservation by the choreographers concerned.

A four parts work, choreographed by de Keersmaeker over the period 1981/1982 after her education in NYC, Fase is the seed of her artistic signature: a mesmerising combination of minimal movements and complex rhythmical variations. Very different from the minimal works produced in the USA then, it can be seen as a rigorous study of Steve Reich’s phasing technique and of dance relation to music adding three-dimensional depth while still maintaining the musical principle of the fugue: maximal exploitation of a minimum of material. The result is a disciplined and intricate tasks’ marathon for two bodies that left even Reich impressed.

Performed 290 times worldwide exclusively by de Keersmaeker, it has now been passed on to two young dancers: Soa Ratsifandrihana and Laura Bachman. The first section Piano Phase, my favourite, plays on embodiment and spatial depths and encompasses the two, clad in A-line dresses, socks and sneakers, dancing close to a light grey background so to form with a shadow effect of a group of five dancers. From a distance, the whole has a Muybridge’s aesthetic that perfectly fits the stop-and-go sequence of simple movements such as stepping, swinging, suspensions and turning. The movements and the bodies are put under a lens and dissected by the constant wonder (“Are they performing the same thing at the same time?”) as from synchronous movements they slowly go out of phase, becoming syncopated only to return perfectly in sync. In this endless mandala of paths ways and movements, as they move mid-stage in a different light, they acquire individuality – we recognise them as ‘normal’ human – and as they move even more towards the audience, their backlit silhouettes become human abstractions pointing to the materiality of the body that in the meantime is pouring with sweat, its trajectories made visible by the lights.

<i>Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich</i>, 1982 © Jean Luc Tanghe
Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich, 1982
© Jean Luc Tanghe

The second sequence, Move On, features a Keesmaeker’s staple – the chair – in this case bar high chairs, positioned under lamp lights, upon which the dancers in trousers, rolled up shirts and heels, perform a series of abstract everyday movements – reaching over or leaning back – and movements giving a rhythm – slapping or rotating hands – on a loop of voices recorded during a Harlem riot. As in the previous dance, the image is that of a strong, sensual – as a real body can be – independent woman, a body without artifice, but somehow trapped in a system, or considering the dancers’ conspiratorial smiles, a game.

The third but first composed section, Violin Phase, is a solo based on the geometry of a circle. Again the movement material is simple: swings, turns, hops and stops. The development, following the path drawn by a light from above is less rigid than the first one and for the last part, Clapping Music, the dancers downstage left near the grey background try to reach the bar chairs, upstage right with a combination of steps, skips and swinging legs and arms. They add postmodern break-dance touches as they jump with their sneakers onto a pointe with bent knees.

Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich is an epically physical dance. It presupposes great coordination and rhythm – perfectly performed by Bachman and Ratsifandrihana – and complicity, that de Keersmaeker was able to pass on. Dance conservation is not static, if the dance material stays constant, it is the bodies executing it that change bringing imperceptive additional layers to the performance that thus gains in contemporary meaning. This is inline with the teaching of eight years of TANZFONDS ERBE: dance is best kept alive by dancing (and documenting).