We sit in a warm glow, facing an open stage. The warm glow from the red used in the decoration of the house and the great glass chandelier in the centre of the ceiling. The Akademietheater is small and intimate, with a half circle balcony which surrounds the stage. There is no orchestra pit, the stage comes directly out to the audience.
That stage is entirely bare, without a trace of curtains or conventional set. Stagehands sit off to the left with some ropes. There are wooden chairs and small tables arranged haphazardly in both wings, as if a sidewalk café were just winding down.
Six clear lightbulbs hung in two rows over the stage burn dimly .
On the floor of the stage there is a row of rough wooden boards about one and a half metres wide. Behind that is some kind of a yellow mat about six metres wide and then another row of wooden boards. Some kind of white ruffled cotton fabric lies on top of the back wooden boards.
Sometime after nine, the three white cotton curtains are hoisted by the visible stage hand to slowly cover the bare black brick wall.
In English, a voice with a rich Indian accent tells us, Raga’s name is desh.
From the right side of the stage arrive two European dancers in very simple thigh length dresses, a fair headed woman in yellow (Marion Ballester) and a darker haired woman in orange (Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker).
Lights come up from the side, bathing them in soft and reflected light from the white cotton backdrop. They are almost skipping with light movements and gentle poses. The two seem to be having fun. The poses they take recall those of Indian mythology and illustration.
Throughout the two women’s dance we hear beautiful singing in Indian nearly a capella. It is Raga Desh sung by Ustad Sayeeduddin Dagar and Raga Desh. It is a long musical movement, taking us for a half an hour reflective journey to the same light dancing.
At some point the two women begin to kick up some dust from the yellow mat which has been very cunningly sprinkled with a kind of sandy dust which floats atmospherically in the sidelights, taking us out of the Western theatre. The dancers control the amount of dust in the air by how hard they scrape their feet while they dance.
Finally after about a half an hour, Marion Ballester collapses. De Keersmaeker now squats, then lies flat. Then a cartwheel and some loose pirouettes.
The music is more vigorous and the dancing correspondingly so. Ballester sings to herself as she dance. She and De Keersmaeker look at one another and De Keersmaeker leaves.
The lights brighten and a stagehand becomes visible. The six bare lightbulbs over the stage come on again, the stagehand lowers the white curtains to the ground. Silence. Soft glow along the edge of the wooden panels at the front.
A woman in a black cape throws herself to the ground, rises and stands with her back to us. She makes some very painful contortions. She wanders to the front left of the stage and drops the black cloak. It is Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker again, she is now wearing a yellow dress which looks entirely of rags and is paper thin. She squats on the stage, powerful and bare.
She moves into a long solo which seem to be about lightness and the small joys of life. Certainly her persona in the rag dress is not enjoying any material wealth which could motivate such animation. The dancing is a combination of Indian twists and European extensions. The extensions and the tiny dress, exaggerate De Keersmaeker’s slender and graceful legs.
Until now I’ve just seen Thierry de May’s wonderful dance film collaborations with Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker, but never the Rosas company live. I’ve never understood why almost all the former and present Rosas dancers I’ve seen in other productions have a similar appearance – chestnut hair, long limbs, fine legs, attractive regular features. They resemble De Keersmaeker herself.
Her energetic solo culminates after almost twenty minutes with stronger music and hard pliés and then she is gone.
The six bare bulbs light up.
A man (Salva Sanchis) and a woman come onto the stage and start to clean up the curtains at the back of the stage, move the cloak away from the front of the stage. First they dance together in silence and then to a pulsating percussion. De Keersmaeker is tired already from her long solo, but the man moves slowly and deliberately. They are joined by Ballester.
Ballester and De Keersmaeker dance together or in sync for a time. It is difficult to ascertain the relationships. Sanchis’s character seems to have a preference for the darker woman.
At ten after eleven, the white curtains are lifted up and out of sight to leave the stage entirely bare. Sanchis changes into a white shirt on stage and begins a solo in silence.
Some jazz music starts up. It is a piece of John Coltrane from his famous India concert in 1961.
The chandelier now fills most of the house with a warm glow – a nice device to create minimal separation between performer and audience. Sanchis’s movements to the sophisticated jazz score are smooth and light and supple. He deliberately kicks up a dust storm at one point as black curtains come down.
The music is very difficult and complex but Sanchis quickly finds an appropriate physical phrase for every musical one in what looks like tightly organised improvisation. The audience is rapt.
At the end of the Coltrane music, the white curtains come back down, while the black curtains return to the rafters. The stage is now very bright. The two women come out now in white. They lie on their backs with one leg raised in a sort of equilibrium.
A backwards somersault to land on feet and they begin to dance again to very dreamy music from Hariprasad Chaurasia. For very unclear reasons, De Keersmaeker fetches a strange white and black shirt. This shirt with its elaborate patterns distracts terribly from the clean lines of the performance. Both dancers seem to be seeking something.
The two women are joined at then end by Sanchis in grey trousers and a white shirt. The stage is very bright and the atmosphere is light. Sanchis’s character seems to prefer the fair headed Ballester now.
Finally the three white curtains are dropped down at the end of the piece leaving the stage exactly as it was when we arrived. Six small lightbulbs burn dimly.
We have done a kind of circle returning to where we began.
A question that arose in my mind during the show is whether we need Westernised versions of this dancing. Wouldn’t this be better staged with Indian dancers and authentic movements? This is what I came up with:
First, there is the issue of repertoire. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker has her own company. Next, it would take a long time to get the same insouciant lightness from dancers trained in another tradition than from Rosas company dancers. Finally, is there any reason that Western artists should not be free to make meditations on Eastern art on their own terms?
The passion for authenticity and the insistence peoples speak in their own voice is a recent phenomenon arising from issues of political correctness in North America. In Bollywood, Indian film makers and producers appropriate whatever ideas and techniques they wish from American and European cinema without apology. De Keersmaeker is helping Indian dance and music, giving a taste of her experience of it to a new public.
Having seen Desh, my own appetite is whetted to go and see more Indian dancing and performance.
On the other hand, I was disappointed that the music was from phonogram. There couldn’t be more than a couple of voices and a few instruments used in the entire soundtrack apart from the John Coltrane section. Dance is always better with live accompaniment – the performance breathes better for some reason, takes on a life of its own. So as minimalist a piece as Desh would certainly be better for with live musical performance.
Among the audience, there were complaints that there wasn’t enough of an idea, that there was just dancing. They didn’t see the point of it.
I have to disagree completely. The choreography was attractive, the dancing light and full of charm. The apposition of a great jazz number with Indian music brought out the specificity of both. The performances were very good.
Not a show to change the history of choreography nor to propose an alternative metaphysics but rather an airy adventure into another sound and space. It would be wonderful to be able to see such dancing every day.