Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker & Jérôme Bel

December 1, 2011

Sadler’s Wells Theatre
London, England

November 21–22, 2011

Performance reviewed: Nov. 21

The collaboration between Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Jérôme Bel, and the contemporary music ensemble Ictus has produced a pretentious work, 3Abschied, that fills 90 minutes with haunting music and irritating dancing. Despite the involvement of two choreographers, the final section of Mahler’s song cycle Das Lied von der Erde takes pride of place, overpowering the inconsequential movement that occasionally accompanies it. We heard that music, entitled Der Abschied (The Farewell), three times: in a sonorous old recording, conducted by Bruno Walter; in Arnold Schoenberg’s transcription for 13 instruments, sensitively performed by Ictus with the mezzo-soprano Sara Fulgoni; and ultimately in a solo piano transcription.


No one danced to the recording. De Keersmaeker dashed among the musicians during the Ictus rendition, laying her hands or face on them, mimicing the conductor, miming the musical dynamics—loud, soft, trembling, sustained—with illustrative gestures; or standing raptly still, apparently too moved to move.


The last time around, she cut back on her physical activity in order to sing the text, crooning more to herself than to us. Unable to hear or possibly bear her off-pitch vocalizing, several viewers walked out.


But let’s back up. Having stopped the recording mid-phrase, De Keersmaeker launched into a long speech about her interest in this particular score. “I wanted to make a performance about the earth,” she declared, adding that first she wanted to learn to sing the music, then to perform it with live musicians, finally to work on it with a collaborator. Meeting her enthusiasm with cautionary warnings, her voice teacher compared singing The Farewell to climbing the Himalayas in sneakers, and Daniel Barenboim protested that she shouldn’t choreograph it because dancing would only diminish it.



“So how do you dance to music that speaks about death?” she asked us. Stepping out beside the piano after the ensemble’s performance of the piece, Jérôme Bel presented two alternate answers. First he asked the musicians to play the final portion of the song while leaving the stage one by one, as they would in Haydn’s “Farewell” symphony. He then suggested they repeat the same passage while pretending to die, sliding out of their seats or collapsing over their instruments, which provoked uncomfortable laughter.


In the end, De Keersmaeker got all three of her wishes, and the rest of us, who came to see choreographic invention, got to watch intellectual concepts acted out.


Choose your favorite music, and dance whatever it makes you feel. Lift your arms with longing, slump to the floor, run ecstatically. Children do this all the time, as do some adults, though usually in private. De Keersmaeker’s choreography came no closer to the mysterious beauty of Mahler’s romantic meditation on death than would your spontaneous response or mine. Trivializing a musical composition she claimed to admire, her singing also insulted the audience, offering us, instead of art, the kind of self-indulgence that gives modern dance a bad name.

Photos: Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker in

By Herman Sorgeloos, courtesy Sadler’s Wells.