I had to look closely at the footwear worn by Laura Bachman and Soa Ratsifandrihana in Piano Phase, the first of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich.  The incessant speed and grace of their swivel and glide made me wonder if their white trainers were of the type that concealed ball bearings in the soles! The simple elegance of the two dancers’ movements was enhanced by the gentle swish of the long, full skirts on their otherwise body-hugging, pastel-pale shift dresses.

Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich
© Anne Van Aerschot

Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich is a key work in the career of one of Europe’s titans of modern dance during the past 40 years. It’s not De Keersmaeker’s first work (that was Asch, in 1980) but it followed shortly thereafter, in 1982, when the choreographer was just 22 and with such success that it led to the formation of her own dance company, Rosas. Over the past four decades, De Keersmaeker has always danced the work herself (working with partners like Jennifer Everhard and Michèle Anne De Mey) but, beginning in 2018, she has passed it on to new dancers (Bachman and Ratsifandrihana are one of two Rosas pairs currently performing the work). This UK premiere of De Keersmaeker’s Fase without De Keersmaeker came courtesy of the excellent Dance Reflections Festival curated by Van Cleef and Arpels. 

Fase comprises three duets and a solo with a combined run time of over sixty minutes, each movement separated by a lengthy pause, allowing the dancers to get their breath back and change costumes. Simple movement motifs distinguish each section, choreographed to a repetitive work by Reich: swivel, turn and glide in Piano Phase (1967); sitting, bending and reaching in Come Out (1966); playful half-turns, swinging arms and leg extensions in the travelling solo to Violin Phase (1967); and a joyful finale in bouncing, skipping and pointe-posing to Clapping Music (1972). Taken altogether it is a deceptively complex sequence of dance with little to cue the dancers other than their perpetual counts and an occasional oral hint. At least Bachman could sit out the third dance but for her companion it was a marathon of unrelenting effort and, unsurprisingly, a hint of fatigue began to show in the final duet. The two dancers slipped out after their first curtain call and returned quickly wearing dark green t-shirts, one bearing the word ‘No’ and the other ‘War’: a nice touch that was well appreciated by the capacity audience. 

Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich
© Anne Van Aerschot

An invisible noose binds the choreography tightly to the music: if there is a more integrated example of minimalist movement and music in modern dance, I have yet to find it. The creative inspiration for the quartet of interlinked pieces came first with the solo, Violin Phase;  De Keersmaeker’s signature choreography in her childlike dance that bisects the stage in geometric patterns like a field spaniel quartering the ground. I have fond memories of the choreographer owning this – her – dance and it is high praise indeed to report that Ratsifandrihana stamped her own mark onto the work with emotional potency and vigour. 

The three duets play with aspects of harmonisation and counterpoint, shifting the phases of each dancer’s movement in ways that vary from slight, almost imperceptible, variations to large and obvious changes; but always bringing the movements back into synchronised harmony. This is most obvious in the rotating arm extensions of Piano Phase, a gentle introduction to the phase-shifting concept, and it continues into the different seated configurations of Come Out, where Reich loops and reduces a four second taped fragment of a young black boy (Daniel Hamm), speaking at the time of riots in Harlem, about opening up a bruise to let “the bruise blood come out to show them”, as a means of demonstrating that he had been beaten up by the police; and in the jaunty skips and toe balances of Clapping Music.

I confess to never having been an aficionado of Reich’s minimal music but De Keersmaeker’s choreography enriches these four pieces by bringing an exciting visual dimension of changing forms and patterns that sit so sublimely with the music. De Keersmaeker’s choreographic genius is to take ingredients which could easily add up to something mundane, even mediocre, and create a work of mesmerising intensity. She has created a particular spellbinding artistic alchemy, which is still undiminished after all these years, even when the special measure of De Keersmaeker the performer has been replaced.

****1