Famed Belgian company Rosas is back in Montreal with another revamped work from the repertoire, A Love Supreme. The seeds for this work began to sprout in 2005 around a shared obsession; choreographers Salva Sanchis and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker were both fascinated with John Coltrane's 1964 masterpiece of the same name, and decided to make a choreographic interpretation of it.

Jason Respilieux, Thomas Vantuycom, Bilal El Had, José Paulo dos Santos, A Love Supreme
© Anne-Van-Aerschot

Coltrane’s 33-minute piece is divided into four movements, the first of which included the famous series of four notes that provide the foundation to the base harmony: G - B flat, G - C; including (here and there) some schematic indications for the piano and bass. To record A Love Supreme, Coltrane gathered together the trio he had been playing with for several years: McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. It was one of the most revolutionary jazz recordings of the 20th century, and it was captured in one glorious, uninterrupted take.

De Keersmaeker and Sanchis’ undertaking—to create a kind of movement-based translation of Coltrane’s opus—is thinky and ambitious; to work properly, the result would need to mirror his seamless blending of improvisation and set composition. Rosas’ interpretation is a scribbly but illuminating study into the systems and structures that underpin this piece of music, and the tension between those structures and the layers of improvisation that bring the piece to life. The practice of improvisation has been a central tenet of De Keersmaeker’s oeuvre right from the start, and ties into her minimalist, cerebral approach to choreography in general. A lot of her work is about the interplay between order and disorder, a certain obsession with pattern and a tense structural response to the music.

Sanchis and De Keersmaeker rewrote their 2005 piece to be danced by four young male dancers: José Paulo dos Santos, Bilal El Had, Jason Respilieux and Thomas Vantuycom. Each dancer is linked to one specific instrument, and they try to tap the true character and emotional range of the musician. The stage is stripped bare, the lighting raw and bright. Etched in black tape on the stage is the repetitive stamp of Fibonacci tiling - the basis of the golden ratio that is found in everything from data structures to the flowering of an artichoke.

The four dancers offer uniformly clean contemporary technique, executed with focus and intent. There is very little partnering; rather they spiral around each other, mostly in their own bubbles, coming together in choreographic unison from time to time. Together and separately they provide the viewer with a kind of spatial and musical mapping, making seemingly ad hoc choices within a tightly-wound structure. The quartet dole out expansive arcs, sharp pivots, soft feet and precise counterbalance penchés. The only “tell” between the choreographed and the improvised are glimpses of smiles, a couple of elegantly-managed near-collisions.

“The nicest compliment we received”, according to De Keersmaeker, “was from Fabrizio Cassol, the saxophonist of Aka Moon. After having seen the performance, he informed me that he thought it was simply impossible that the piece would have been improvised, since it was way too precise. I think that’s exactly what we’re aiming for: the impossibility of ever truly distinguishing between the written base and the improvised material.”

How successful is A Love Supreme as a dance work? As an intellectual exercise, it’s rigorous and demanding for both the dancers and the audience, with a high expectation of focus for both. It feels, at times, more like a contemporary improvisation class than a fully-fledged work.

It’s perhaps more helpful to think about A Love Supreme as a sketch or study that offers context to the wider Rosas repertoire. Of course, a visit to any museum will tell you that sketches and studies offer a lot in terms of context and a glimpse into an artist’s process, but they’re not quite the same thing as seeing a major work. Go with this frame of mind and you won’t be disappointed.