Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker first encountered minimalism as a college student in New York. After the psychedelic romanticism of Maurice Béjart – whose legendary school the Belgian had attended in her teens – this plain-spoken structuralism proved a revelation. But in avoiding expressionism, whereby dancing amounts to an outpouring of feeling, why was it necessary, she wondered, to reduce movement to a task, like doing the laundry? Why empty the body of self only to leave it empty?
It took a European to save American minimalist dance from its endgame. In the Lincoln Center Festival’s four programmes of “Early Works” from the 1980s, we watch this brilliant, persistent choreographer figure out how. Taken together, the pieces so far (a final programme remains) show a young artist progressing “step by step”, as de Keersmaeker once ruefully put it, in pieces inhabited by females growing up in fits and starts.
The moves in the duets and solos of Fase, four movements to the music of Steve Reich, could not have been plainer: step, swing, swivel, turn. The patterns evolved incrementally like the music; the dancers moved in and out of phase with each other. Allusions also came and went. When a dancer touched her fingertips together while suspended on her toes, I thought of Ginger Rogers waiting with aplomb to sashay off with Fred Astaire.
The hints of story that emerged suddenly from metronomic patterns always startled, especially when de Keersmaeker was involved. Strong individual dancers define Rosas, her troupe, but I still had to tear myself away from watching just her. At 54, she is spunky, volatile and enlivened by the steps. If the postmodern tendency is to conceive dancing as distinct from dancer, de Keersmaeker treats it like a lake to be dived into, with treasures in its depths.
After Fase, the work became emotionally and structurally looser. The 1984 breakout hit Rosas Danst Rosas (returning to the US in October) is de Keersmaeker’s Sleeping Beauty. Four women in schoolgirl skirts began in silence and sumptuous slumber before rising to slouch towards a persona. Fase’s childlike simplicity is replaced by a teenage hunger for sensation and self-invention, but not as Beyoncé imagines it in the video that brazenly replicates de Keersmaeker’s moves. (De Keersmaeker, indeed, accused Beyoncé of plagiarism; in response, Beyoncé acknowledged only that de Keersmaeker’s dance was one of her inspirations.) The pop diva captures only the women’s voluptuousness, not the machine of their moodiness or their endearing experiments in exhibitionism, as when Tale Dolven exposes a shoulder as fastidiously as a waiter plucking a cloth off a fancy dish. Rosas Danst Rosas has its problems – for example, each section is too long – but its young women are that rare thing in art: recognisable.
If Rosas Danst Rosas is de Keersmaeker’s rejoinder to pop’s banal notions of seductive womanhood, the desolate Elena’s Aria, revived for the first time since its creation three decades ago, is her response to the abjection and imperious ladies of Pina Bausch. “How to dance when you don’t want to?” Elena’s Aria asks. “In Bauschian stilettoes,” is one of its answers. In heels you couldn’t really move if you wanted to; the shoes suit an internal state of confinement and collapse.
Other people’s despair is hard to take, so the two-hour work only began to pay off when the stuttery patterns began to amass. They seemed to mitigate the women’s isolation: out of their misery, this collective work. Where de Keersmaeker most departs from Bausch is in her faith that form changes feeling, that choreography rearranges you – dancer and audience alike.