It is ironic that Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker’s closest brush with worldwide fame came a couple of years ago, when she unwittingly found herself in the midst of a plagiarism controversy involving her nearly 30-year-old choreography being egregiously borrowed in a music video by Beyonce. On the other hand, in another twist of irony, the incident was a living testament to the enduring power of the work of this choreographer, who has been a major force on the European contemporary dance scene – albeit a niche market by world standards.

Cesena © Stephanie Berger
Cesena
© Stephanie Berger

But really, it is not fair to begin sharing my observations about De Keersmaeker’s transcendent works En Atendant and Cesena – on view this weekend as part of the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music – with such a mundane reference. That said, in order to fully appreciate the adaptation of these works for the occasion of their New York premières, a few context notes are in order. Both works were essentially location-specific in their origin, having been commissioned by the famed Avignon Festival, and premièred on medieval church sites: the cloister of the Celestins and the Papal Palace, respectively. Both pieces are likewise set to ars subtilior, a refined form of polyphonic vocal music that indeed flourished in Avignon in the late 14th century. As such, these works are the paragon of site-specific work, inextricably linked by both design and dramaturgy to the original locations for which they were created.

When En Atendant premièred in Avignon in 2010 in the open-air cloister courtyard, it was specifically timed to begin at twilight. As the work progressed, the dying light bathed the dancers, plunging them in the darkness in the work’s final minutes. That is a difficult feat to replicate in a classical theatre such as BAM’s Opera House, but De Keersmaeker achieves the magic with the simplest of means. Leaving the stage completely bare, she lights it only with a linear bank of fluorescent tubes that float high above the proscenium, illuminating really just the apron, while the rear stage remains submerged in total darkness throughout. Out of that darkness, various figures emerge and disappear, beginning with breath and simple intonations of a lone flute player (Michael Schmid). With the houselights still on, the flutist’s prologue continues for over 10 minutes, and with his breathing strained, and sustained notes increasing in pitch, a birthing metaphor floats up in my mind. As he abruptly ends and leaves the stage and the houselights dim – although I am quite sure this next detail is a coincidence – a pregnant woman, vocalist Annelies Van Gramberen, enters the stage and begins to sing the mournful medieval tune. Soon after, the dancers begin to emerge from the darkness of the rear stage. Their steps are nimble, tentative at first, as if they were treading on thin ice.

Beginning with solos and duets, sometimes accompanied by the singer, but also with extended intervals of silence, the work is imbued with an air of frailty that is communicated with subtle details of footwork and gesture. There is a tangible feeling of musicality to the choreography too, as recognizable sections of movement are performed in unison, canon and counterpoint. It is safe to say that En Atendant negotiates in abstractions, and in its most successful parts, it manages to transmit meaning by evoking its thematic impetus: the medieval music acts as a constant reminder of the connection to its historical context, the nihilistic final stretch of the Middle Ages plagued with famine, strife, and, well, the Plague – a period in the Old World’s history that witnessed the One Hundred Years’ War, the controversial schism of the Catholic church, and saw one-third of the European population wiped out by the Black Death over a brutal three-year period.

On stage, a sense of community bound together by loss is created by a simple dynamic of the entire ensemble being on the stage for the duration of the work, standing off to the sides when not performing, or in the shadows, witnessing the scenes unfold in the middle. The ensemble sections, some of the most exquisite partnering work aside, remind me of tableaux captured straight out a Hieronymus Bosch painting (Flemish, like De Keersmaeker; as well as a contemporary of the ars subtilior music style); an unsparing testament to the human condition and a stark reminder of the good old “we are in this together” applied to mankind as a whole. It is in these ensemble sections that the piece becomes fully alive, as the connection between the singing, choreography and the dramaturgy sparks full force. But then there are sections when the work lags in its meanderings, and some that feel almost incongruous, such as when the ensemble members disrobe on the stage and switch costumes (without an appreciable outcome) or when, towards the end of the work, they suddenly attempt to create a sense of narrative through theatrical tableaux with tangible characters, which appear very much out of context in an otherwise abstract piece. But, I am inclined to forgive the inconsistencies as the fluorescent lights begin to fade out one at a time, and a single, naked figure is left to roam around in near darkness in a state of bewilderment: in the end, I can barely see his form, I can mostly hear his breathing, and then the breathing stops. It is in this final moment that the initial metaphor of life comes full circle, and – no pun intended – it takes my breath away. We are born alone, I am reminded, and indeed, we die alone.

De Keersmaeker puts a lot of good stuff on display in En Atendant, but she serves a real feast – though not an easy one for sure – later in the evening with Cesena. In many ways a companion piece to En Atendant – it was created for the same festival, but a year later, in 2011 – Cesena feels like a more ambitious undertaking, and also a more successful one, a work born out of the same context, but one that had more time to grow and mature, arguably benefitting from the research that went into the creation of its predecessor. Similarly to En Atendant, De Keersmaeker’s original staging of Cesena was set at a very precise time of day: 4.30 in the morning to be exact, again in an outdoor venue (the courtyard of the Papal Palace in Avignon). At BAM, Cesena picks up where the previous work left off, with an extended prologue performed by a lone, screaming, naked man roaming around the stage in near darkness. Unlike En Atendant, Cesena’s progression is propelled with just enough narrative – non linear, but narrative nonetheless – to be endowed with a certain forward thrust that makes it more engaging. Make no mistake: this is challenging fare, and entering the world of this piece requires patience and significant investment of spectator’s attention, but allow yourself to get lost in this world and it is sure to leave you feeling transported. But then, you may disagree – as some viewers couldn’t resist to express, and loudly so: just about one-half of the show (Cesena’s running time clocks in at nearly two hours) is performed in near darkness, and at some point, a young woman in the rafters screams: “Turn the lights on so we can see what’s going on!” I beg to disagree: the extended darkness makes me tune into the performance with all of my senses and really highlights the connection between the bodies and the sound. Impressively, the richly textured soundscape of Cesena is completely man-made: the singing, the sound of the performers’ footsteps, a hammer rhythmically hitting a rock somewhere in the darkness, the breath (again), and so forth. In En Atendant, De Keersmaeker puts a sole singer, seated for much of the performance, off to the side of the stage; in Cesena, not only is the singing more powerful (well – there are at least six singers involved, as far as I can tell), De Keersmaeker removes the divide between the dancers and the singers (the vocal ensemble graindelavoix), and the two ensembles commingle on the stage throughout. It is a risky bet on choreographer’s part, but a handsomely winning one – the dancers sing, the singers dance and the synergy of the two ensembles creates a powerful presence on the stage. As Cesena unfolds, I feel like I am witnessing an accelerated passage of time, a sense of years of history rushing, and slowing down, as if I was enabled to access the soup of the humanity’s collective memory: wars, migrations, strife… Images of fragility, sickness and bodies being laid to rest are recurring motifs, but so is the strength that emerges from resilience of people coming together in the face of adversity. While there is a palpable sense of loss that runs through this work, Cesena is ultimately buoyed by a sense of hope, as the growing light seems to suggest the emergence of a new era, a brighter future ahead.

Personally, Cesena will also remain memorable because of the way in which De Keersmaeker makes use of the BAM Opera House stage. When the lights very slowly come on some hour into the piece from an invisible source high up in the fly space, after many years and many shows I have seen in this space, I get to witness this stage for the very first time in all its bare glory. It is a beautiful sight to behold. And perhaps, a new beginning indeed.

****1