A loomlike beaded curtain frames the Edinburgh Playhouse stage in a semicircle. A few chairs are dotted around the peripheries and the entire scene is bathed in orange. The performance starts suddenly, with the distinctive repeated opening chords of Steve Reich’s wonderful minimalist composition Music for 18 Musicians. The Rosas dancers walk onstage in a spiral, speeding to a jog, then a run, before the eager Edinburgh Festival audience has even completely grasped that the performance has started.

<i>Rain</i> © Anne Van Aerschot
Rain
© Anne Van Aerschot

Choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker has a deep affinity for Steve Reich and Rain is just one in a stream of dances that De Keersmaeker has set to Reich’s music. Many of the dancers in Rain here were also involved in its ‘twin sister’ piece, Drumming, and Steve Reich himself was impressed by the earlier work Fase, praising De Keersmaeker’s use of light and shadow as well as her intuitive interpretation of his compositions.

Music for 18 Musicians is pushed along relentlessly by the persistent pulse of the piano and mallet instruments, and Rain incorporates that mechanical drive splendidly. With repeated short sections of choreography, there is a machine-like feel throughout. A particularly effective instance occurs when the dancers march shoulder to shoulder to emulate the moving hand of a clock. They weave in and out of each other to constantly switch positions, while maintaining the general straight-line formation, creating the fantastic illusion that the hand itself is made of intricate moving cogs.

The industrialised atmosphere is reinforced by different, but similar, choreography performed facing separate directions. A wave-like effect is created when instances of two or three dancers end up falling into the same motions for a moment before breaking apart again as if moving in and out of phase with each other.

<i>Rain</i> © Anne Van Aerschot
Rain
© Anne Van Aerschot

The rhythmic layer of music has another contrasting layer on top of it, which is more fluid and breath-like. The oscillating but mechanical choreography mirrors the music’s driving beat against pulses of dizzying swells, which are brilliantly emulated by the dancers slowly leaning off-kilter before gradually righting their position. The two opposed rhythms pervading Reich’s music are translated into the juxtaposition of soft arm movements and balletic leaps alongside jagged robotic motions and angular limbs.

Ideally, minimalist music gradually alters so slowly that it is mostly unnoticeable at first, with changes so subtle that the first-time listener should not notice that the music has altered until some point after it has changed again. Steve Reich is a master of this effect, and here De Keersmaeker ingeniously mimics the phenomenon via costume changes (of all things!). There are three different costume palettes that the dancers wear, starting with pale pinks, moving to deep magentas and finally resting on washed out skin tones. However, Rain is a continuous performance, so the dancers gradually leave the stage to get changed while other dancers are still performing onstage in the previous colour. It is done so subtly with no attention drawn to it, that it was not until about half of the ten dancers had already got changed that I even noticed the difference. It is an innovative method for translating the musical effect into a visual one, and one that I really enjoyed.

<i>Rain</i> © Anne Van Aerschot
Rain
© Anne Van Aerschot

I did wonder, even after reading the programme, why the performance is called Rain. Although De Keersmaeker has opted to avoid ‘theatrical acting’ in her choreography, she says she was inspired by the New Zealand writer Kirsty Gunn’s novel of the same name – in particular, a scene where a girl attempts to revive her drowned brother. But, even if the intention was to merely evoke the feelings of the passage rather than relay the story, the atmosphere seemed too lighthearted to reflect this. The dancers were smiling throughout and the choreography was carefree, with leapfrogs and pretty lifts; there was very little indication of the tragedy that inspired the piece. There were a few more sombre aspects – there was a particularly evocative moment when the dancers ran behind the beaded curtain so that the audience could only make out the suggestion of their features and the bright light that moved across the back of the stage invoked the idea of a lighthouse – but for the most part the grinning dancers onstage did not call up images of drowned family members.

That said, as a piece of pure dance, which other parts of the programme suggested was the intention, it was a very solid routine. The dancing fit well with the minimalist themes and tied in brilliantly with Steve Reich’s music. Keersmaeker’s choreography already had Reich’s seal of approval, and after Friday’s enjoyable performance, I am inclined to agree.