Rehearsal for Brandenburg Concertos. Photo by Anne Van Aerschot, Courtesy Resnicow and Associates

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker on Her Love Affair With Bach & Why She's Finally Ready for Broadway

What do Johann Sebastian Bach and Leonard Bernstein have in common? Not much, save perhaps an enthusiasm for counterpoint and a propensity for pushing the envelope. That, and they've both attracted the interest of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, the Belgian choreographer who has always thought of music as her primary partner.

Next week, New York audiences will experience her latest work to Bach, The Six Brandenburg Concertos, at the expansive Park Avenue Armory, featuring a multi-generational cast of 16 dancers plus baroque music ensemble B'Rock.

But next year will bring a far more unexpected project for de Keersmaeker: The Broadway revival of West Side Story, which she will be choreographing alongside Ivo van Hove as director. What sold the contemporary giant on taking on a show so far outside her typical oeuvre? The music, of course.


Why She Keeps Coming Back to Bach

Brandenburg will mark de Keersmaeker's fifth time working with the music of Bach. "I find that Bach played badly is still great," she says. "It invites me to dance. It embodies abstraction and that's what interests me in dance. It reflects order and chaos at the same time."

What Makes This Piece Different

Brandenburg will feature a cast of 16. Photo by Anne Van Aerschot, Courtesy Resnicow and Associates

De Keersmaeker is tackling Bach on a grander scale than ever. While her previous works were set to music for solo musicians, the Brandenburg Concertos are complex works for many instruments. The piece will also feature her largest cast to date: a group of 16 including some of the oldest and newest members of de Keersmaeker's company, Rosas. "It's an enormous joy to bring different generations of dancers together," she says.

What Audiences Can Expect

Rehearsal for Brandenburg Concertos. Photo by Anne Van Aerschot, Courtesy Resnicow and Associates

"It's like moving architecture," de Keersmaeker says of the Brandenburg Concertos. "It's about uplifting, jubilating energy. It's about communication, it's extremely consequential and has extreme clarity of form. It expresses such a wide range of emotions such as joy, anger, sadness, desperation, rage, empathy." Her goal? "In the most careful, modest way trying to formulate what could be a possible choreographic answer to these masterworks."

Why Making Brandenburg Was Inevitable

Though de Keersmaeker is only now tackling the complexity of the Brandenburg works, they have been a part of her process since 1980, when she was making her first solo to the music of Steve Reich called Violin Phase. Brandenburg was prevalent in the studio back then, she says, but she was scared to create something to it. Even now, with four Bach works under her belt, she questions whether putting movement to such masterworks is "too much vanity to aim for."

What Made Her Say Yes To West Side Story

Though de Keersmaeker won't say much about her plans for West Side Story just yet, she did admit that it's not a project she would have ever thought she'd be doing. But her rewarding experience directing the large-scale Così fan tutte at the Paris Opéra last year—another project she never thought she'd do—plus the chance to work with Ivo van Hove and explore a key work in the history of musical theater convinced her to say yes when van Hove asked her to choreograph.

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021