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Meeting someone you’ve admired for a long time, or even seeing them in person, is a funny thing, when you consider how much you’ve thought about them, compared with how little (or, not at all) they’ve thought about you. They don’t know it, but the two of you have a history together. They’ve changed you, inspired you, worked their way into your ongoing dialogue with yourself. They may have no idea who you are, but you feel as if you know them intimately.
Such thoughts crossed my mind when I saw Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker last month at the Museum of Modern Art. As part of MoMA’s exhibition “On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century,” De Keersmaeker drew in the sand—the vast, square expanse of sand that serves as her stage in Violin Phase (a section from Fase: Four movements to the Music of Steve Reich). I got to the museum 40 minutes early to secure a view from the second-floor hallway overlooking the atrium. Here, I could see the circular pattern she would carve (a wheel with eight spokes, or a flower with eight petals) in her finely calibrated journey along circumference, diameters, and radii.
I expected De Keersmaeker—who fueled my interest in dance during college, whose school (P.A.R.T.S.) I attended last summer in Belgium, who inspired some euphoric performance-experiments with a few friends last spring—to seem larger than life, even in her tiny frame. But her presence felt deeply familiar. In this piece, one of her earliest, which put her on the map in 1982 as a force in (European) contemporary dance, I saw many of the qualities which have drawn me to her work: the mesmerizing repetition, the complexity born from a simple geometric structure, the tight rhythmic interplay with Reich’s music, the breathy tension, the subdued sensuality, the distinctly feminine power.
One moment in particular—when De Keersmaeker runs her fingers through her hair (or at least that’s what it looked like from above)—reminded me of a motif in Rosas danst Rosas (1983). I first watched this piece—the film version, directed by her frequent collaborator Thierry de Mey—my junior year of college, for a course called Performing the Political. I remember hunkering down in the library late at night, popping in the video, and sitting transfixed for an hour, though it seemed like longer, in the best way. I felt an immediate affinity for these four women, who eventually multiply into a group of about twelve, as the camera followed them through the corridors and cavernous rooms of a deserted school building.
What was it about them? Their sultriness, definitely—but a certain kind of sultriness, rooted in rigor, precision. Amid all the messages about female empowerment I was getting at my all-women’s college, Rosas captured something more resonant about femininity: a tension between letting go and holding on, between revealing and concealing.
In one of many recurring gestures, the women tug on the fabric of their loose grey shirts to expose a bare shoulder, linger there for just a second, then quickly cover it up, as if afraid of being caught. In another, the left arm lashes out and the right yanks it back. Through their movement and breath alone, never emoting (except to exchange a few knowing glances), they shifted deftly between moods—brash, seductive, demure, defeated, frustrated, composed. There was a wonderful succinctness and clarity in everything they did, a total self-possession, even in their most uninhibited moments.
There are shades of all this in Violin Phase, and to see it performed live by De Keersmaeker was like unearthing the origins of something previously unexplained. I also saw how deeply she excavates Reich’s music, something I’d known but not fully realized. Their kindred minimalist spirits work in beautiful tandem.
From her first action—a simple weight transfer between two feet, which propels the twisting of her torso—De Keersmaeker doesn’t move to the music, but is inhabited by it. The units of Reich’s exacting string composition, like those of her choreography, repeat, modify, double back on, and constantly renew themselves. They never get old. As she skids and slides, pivots and swivels through the sand, her movement takes on new layers along with his violins: A hiccup of a jump introduces itself, the kick of a leg pulls her off of one path and onto another, incremental turns become full-out whirling. Just as the music seems to reside within her, as innate as breathing, De Keersmaeker herself, her dress the color of the sand, seems like an elemental force, a brisk yet refreshing wind.
Also at work in Violin Phase is De Keersmaeker’s sharp geometric eye, her reverence for math. I learned something about her way with numbers last summer, when I attended a workshop at P.A.R.T.S., the dance conservatory she established in Brussels, where her company Rosas is based. Every afternoon (after lunch in the school’s macrobiotic kitchen) I spent three hours learning excerpts from Drumming, her 1998 piece to Reich’s percussive score of the same name. The choreography is built on a floor pattern of progressively bigger squares, their sizes corresponding to numbers in the Fibonacci sequence (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8...). When connected, the opposing corners of the squares form a Fibonacci spiral, which gets wider with every quarter turn (like a snail shell). The movement in Drumming blooms out, guided by that spiral, from tight, contained steps in the first and smallest square, to full-bodied running and leaping that eats up the whole space.
“This is a lot like geometry class—the hard parts,” I remember thinking to myself. But what at first felt like a convoluted number game eventually revealed itself to be an elegant, highly ordered structure.
I don’t know how De Keersmaeker choreographed Violin Phase, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some equally elegant computations were involved. Her spontaneity appears to arise from careful measurement: rotating X degrees to the left or right; using Y steps to get from here to there; holding the shoulders at a specific angle to the hips; mirroring the arcs in the sand with the sweeping swing of an arm or a leg.
“Do you think that was improvised?” a woman standing next to me asked when it was over. “No,” I said with complete confidence. “Definitely not.” Of course, I wasn’t entirely sure. But I pretended to know what was going on inside the artist’s mind, like you would with an old friend.
If you missed the performance, a version of Violin Phase for camera, Thierry De Mey’s Top Shot, is on view in MoMA’s “On Line” exhibition through Feb. 7 (along with dance films of Yvonne Rainer, Loie Fuller, William Forsythe, and Trisha Brown). The “On Line” Performance Exhibition Series continues Feb. 2, 5, and 6 with Xavier Le Roy. A film screening on Feb. 5, “Gestural Lines: Dance and Motion,” includes dance films dating from 1895 to the present.
Photo: Still of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker in Top Shot, 2002. Courtesy MoMA.