Dancers whirl through dark space, crossing paths, each following their own axes as they run at full speed along pre-drawn lines like ebullient planets. A deconstruction of the relationship between dance and music, Vortex Temporum is an engaging work, both powerfully engaging and lightly playful. This week saw the UK première of this 2013 choreography by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker at Sadler’s Wells to the strange and eerie sounds of Gerard Grisey’s 1996 piece by the same name, performed by Belgian dance company Rosas and contemporary music ensemble Ictus.

Vortex Temporum © Anne Van Aerschot
Vortex Temporum
© Anne Van Aerschot

The hour-long piece opens with a charismatic performance from the six musicians, atonal bursts from the piano, flute and clarinet fading to a flutter as the strings add a further off-kilter layer. The intense sound gives a sense of jarring, of something flung against a hard surface rebounding, the movement depleting and returning again. The instruments and their musicians respond to one another physically as well as musically, the violin and viola seeming to lean and sway together. Still no sign of the Rosas dancers. The musicians of Ictus suddenly stop and rise, walking away from their seats along arcing lines. The pianist (Jean-Luc Plouvier) remains just a little while before slamming his hands down in mock anger.

The dancers’ first moments are still and silent. They stand close together, their slow leans leading them into swift imbalances in pairs and trios. They are accompanied only by the sound of their own barely audible breathing and the odd squeak of a shoe sole against the floor. There’s a distinct feeling we’ve already heard the music they're dancing to. In its absence, their impeccable timing is astounding.

Vortex Temporum © Anne Van Aerschot
Vortex Temporum
© Anne Van Aerschot

Like the musicians, they make a speedy exit and leave one dancer – the least energetic of the group, thus far – behind. As if he’s been biding his time, his subtlety evaporates into highly experimental, repetitive motions beside the grand piano. His little jumps and jarring footfalls continue as the pianist returns and just starts playing as if he’d never stopped. How they’re in time I can’t quite grasp. The two exchange a playful look. Just as their proximity strikes me as strange, they momentarily switch roles as, much to the surprise of the pianist, the dancer slams his open palms down on the keyboard a few times before Plouvier regains his rightful place, to the whooping delight of their London audience.

Finally, the unusually separate elements of dance and music come together in some semblance of harmony. The Cellist (Geert De Bievre) drags his bow up and down a string, the two distinct ensembles merging in the ominous sound of stillness. The piano rotates as if on an axis and everyone moves along a unique trajectory, like a solar system in slow motion. A lone voice punctuates the ever-stranger atmosphere with an anachronistic countdown as the entire ensemble speeds up and slows down in the elastic space-time of the music.

Vortex Temporum © Anne Van Aerschot
Vortex Temporum
© Anne Van Aerschot

The dancers listen so intently that they seem utterly unaware of their physical surroundings as they gaze into the middle distance. It’s almost a wonder they don’t crash as they run headlong in vast intertwining circles, their movements mapped out for them in white chalk on the bare black stage. Bows rasp and the flute amplifies a breathy, ghostly sound. It’s like watching sound being transformed into kinetic energy within the bodies on stage.

There is no denying that Vortex Temporum is a challenging piece of work, exploring the space between chaos and order, darkness and light, silence and sound, by deconstructing the relationship between music and dance. This is not simply entertainment. It’s a piece that will leave you curious, wondering whether the spirographic markings on the floor actually meant something and questioning the mathematics involved in choreography. To the inquisitive mind, Vortex Temporum is a delight, pushing the boundaries of contemporary dance.

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