13 October 2010

Paris, 12 octobre, 2010 Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker, Jérôme Bel, Ictus: 3 Abschied

Paris, 12 octobre, 2010

Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker, Jérôme Bel, Ictus: 3 Abschied

Can an established figure in the European post-modern dance scene be praised, forgiven or scorned for taking a risk by deconstructing Mahler, the ultimate (and perhaps last, along with Richard Strauss) maximalist romantic?  Tonight’s performance of 3 Abschied, (three renderings of the last song in Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde) featuring the Belgian choreographer Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker, French provocateur Jérôme Bel and the chamber orchestra, Ictus, was a lecture-demonstration in heart re-rendering, an exercise NOT in any way heart-rending: a post-modern conceit in de-constructing romanticism, of invading a previously forbidden territory of the past with a meekness parading as courageous vulnerability, an amateurism pretending to witty intellectual inquiry, and a large-scale theatrical indulgence that just might have been a serious attempt at baring (or bearing) the post-modern soul.

We enter to see a stage strewn with nine empty chairs, a double bass, celeste, a grand piano audience’s down left, and an undressed stage, stripped of all drapes or cyclorama. The musicians file onto the stage, and De Keersmaeker appears trying hard to be inconspicuous in blue denims, heavy sneakers, a hooded sweatshirt, her small oval face beaded with little, sorrowful eyes.  She sits audience right near a control panel of sorts, and then turns on a vintage-sounding recording of the Mahler song. She and musicians sit immobile in their chairs, as if we are being given a dumb-show lesson in listening. She shifts in her seat, bows her head, and just when I’m beginning to wonder if this is what I’ve paid to see, she turns it off suddenly and addresses the audience in French.

She identifies the recording, (Bruno Walter/Kathleen Ferrier), gives a brief accounting of its history in Mahler’s oeuvre, of her love of the music, and of meeting the maestro Daniel Barenboim to discuss her idea of choreographing the last movement of the Mahler. She accounts with emphatic gesturing and some clucking how he is dismissive, insisting that the music is not to be choreographed, as are the works of Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, Satie… One does not dance with the mere body to music that is of ultimate submission and acceptance of love.  The audience titters, thinking there might be a hook or point of view surfacing to hold onto: the irreverent, clever dancer against the establishment. She speaks of Schoenberg’s transcription/reduction: is it an early example of 20th century Minimalism or the simple economics of paying 13 musicians instead of 80? More titters.

The musicians, dressed in casual clothing they might wear to a rehearsal, begin the Schoenberg version under the sensitive baton of Georges-Elie Octors. De Keersmaeker sits to the side, then rises, having removed her sweatshirt to reveal a bright blue scoop-necked top. She approaches the conductor, as if in an avid listener’s near-trance, and weaves her way among the musicians, taking readings or soundings in her body of their vibrations, their musical auras. Her body shifts alongside Sara Fulgoni, the mezzo-soprano, sways, contracts in increments, heads to the empty space upstage of the musicians, where she scuttles and sprawls on all fours, as if scaling a cliff face that’s been laid flat.

I can tell she is mapping both an inner and outer geography, the music’s emotional and physical terrain—while also negotiating her own emotional responses to it. An image comes to me of Elmer Fudd “Shoot the Rabbit” or some silly cartoon dance that “interprets”, and in doing so, parodies classical music… I sense in De Keersmaeker a desperate search to uncover a movement language that can embody the music’s tragic but redemptive weight and specific poignancy—one that she has lost, or has been worn away to phantom traces in the afterwash of late 20th century stylistic fashions, one that is no longer there. She knows enough to sit down when the music swells beyond her capacity, and then to step entirely off the stage to let the musicians carry the specific emotive weight of the music to fulfillment. Then Bel steps up on stage.

He proposes to the orchestra a staging methodology mimicking Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony, and, following his directions, the musicians repeat the last section, leaving the stage one at a time until the bassoon is left alone repeating the last note like a solitary, dying sheep. Bel summons them back onto stage, and asks for a third rendering, this time directing them to actually feign dying in their seats while playing. Some sink to the floor, flat on their bellies. Dead stillness. At last, we witness a certain mastery of the naïve and innocent vulnerability that De Keersmaeker seems to aspire towards. But the most embarrassing faux pas is left for last rendering with the choreographer “singing” the part to piano accompaniment as she dances fitfully around the stage.

Is this ever-diminishing scale of endeavor proportionate to the magnitude of the music a parody of minimalism, of “interpretive dance”, or is it a “let’s clear away the furniture and sing and dance out a little melodrama in the privacy of the living room”? We see an approach to grace through deep personal introspection on the seeming contradiction between the monumental and the mundane, the universal/eternal and the quotidian/temporal, embodied by De Keersmaeker in a set of simple, awkward steps: lunges with same arm and leg reaching forward, high arches of the sternum upwards, a curved, wing-like arm extended with slightly cupped hand stirring the space, a lifted hip and turned-in knee, a darting run to another point in space. Perhaps she is truly in earnest, trying to bring humankind down to its proper scale, expressing the futility of revisiting the (historical) past or of saving a dying planet. She is an outsider looking in, an exile dwarfed by the completed universe of these musicians and their divine music, trying to fit into the absences or meager spaces left vacant by the otherwise utter fullness of the music. 

I think of Antony Tudor’s use of Kindertotenlieder in his masterwork, Dark Elegies, or Rudi van Dantzig’s ballet to Four Last Songs of Strauss. Another time, another esthetic, and other approaches to finding an intersection of the musical and textual—and grand-scale universal principles--with the corporeal. Is this a kind of post-modern nostalgia from De Keersmaeker, or an acceptance of the limits of her own esthetic? Is this reductionist staging by two choreographers of a final adieu to life on earth, to the earth itself, of an enactment by the petite, wiry deKeersmaeker of  “the meek shall inherit the earth” theme--enough to move the Paris dance audience beyond intellectual curiosity? Or is this an extended assignment on approaches to pre-composed music better suited for a graduate-level dance composition seminar?

While singing the words in a weak voice, she bends to untie her shoelaces and climb up on a chair in her stocking feet, then moves center, lies flat on her back, rises, does a jagged walk like a broken doll, a Petroushka, flops over at the waist, crawls, continues upstage into the semi-darkness, comes downstage again, looks up with lost, sad eyes: a vision out of a Bob Dylan song, It’s all over now, Baby Blue. And she returns to the control board where she began the evening and blacks out the lights, ultimately in control of the evening’s sad charade. The Paris audience at Théâtre de la Ville kept up a hearty applause while I quickly found my coat and filed out the back door.