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ImPulsTanz: Sister – Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Vincent Dunoyer

The first premiere of the ImPulsTanz season was a new co-creation from renowned Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and French performer and choreographer Vincent Dunoyer at the classic Volkstheater in Vienna.

Sister is Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker’s walk on the wild side of French deconstruction of dance. Her P.A.R.T.S. school graduates do occasionally get drawn into this Belesque (as in Jerome) world. But with the main company, Rosas, De Keersmaeker has largely avoided semiotic dance, in favour of evening length movement and music based productions.

Why would Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker choose to go in this direction now?

She likes to try new things. She is very good at everything she does. She may have wearied of having her new productions called old hat by that tiresome breed of dance theoreticians, focused on driving people out of the theater with concepts of authentic stillness and conceptual purity.

Anna Teresa-De-Keersmaeker-Sister
Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker’s entrance in Sister

Concretely, I believe Vincent Dunoyer approached De Keersmaeker with the concept. Dunoyer’s own pedigree includes stints with Ultima Vez and Raimund Hoghes, as well as an extended sejour as a Rosas dancer in the early nineties, so the two know one another well.

The underlying idea of Sister was that Dunoyer would speak to a bunch of Rosas ex-dancers and have them show him what they remembered of their time with Rosas and Anna Teresa in movement. He would then assemble these fragments into a coherent dance. Afterwards, Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker would work with the pieces he gave her to remake her own dance.

Frankly, not a bad idea on paper. How did it turn out in practice?

The ex-Rosas showed him some amazing steps.

Dunoyer put them together in a collage interspersed with short videos of the ex-Rosas dancers either dancing or singing.

The video screen filled up about half the stage. When it wasn’t serving as a white screen it also functioned lit up from the back showing either Dunoyer or De Keersmaeker in silhouette. The brief moments in silhouettte looked rather good.

The second and primary lighting set up was a series of flourescent lights on the right hand side of the stage. The flat side lighting was rather disappointing.

The site of the premiere, Volkstheater, is one of the historic theaters of Vienna. The neoclassical exterior hides a Baroque interior. For me, the dissonance between the stark minimalist staging and the ornate interior made it more difficult to enter the Dunoyer’s conceptualist world.

The first videos for some reason were handheld. Perhaps the intention was reality TV. The result was the impression of sloppy unfinished work. The exact opposite of Rosas polished and precision work.

When Dunoyer danced his collage, his movement was correct but uninspired. And rather in some kind of slow motion.

Until Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker herself appeared, the structure was unfocused and haphasard.

Her first entrance in silhouette was astonishing and powerful. She began in high heels and a thigh-length dress with a high front slit.

Anna De Keersmaeker solo

The first routine included a handstand. De Keermaker once again demonstrated astonishing form. Her legs are strong and slim, her stomach like a 20 year old. She still moves better than ninety percent of dancers in their twenties. Like Maya Plissetskaya, as a performer Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker is an incredible phenomenon.

For a while the power of her dancing and her presence grabbed the audience like the show had finally begun.

But then the flat lighting and absence of structure took its toll even on De Keersmaeker’s performance.

Sisters as a whole showed us that the parts are less than the sum. In the end, Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker is not primarily a choreographer of movement (i.e. George Balanchine). This is not to say De Keersmaeker’s language of movement is not expressive – it is.

But De Keersmaeker real genius lies in her sense of emotion, her theatricality, her musicality. There is nothing so wonderful as how she can build and rebuild small threads of movement through a performance into world changing poignancy, as she did in the astonishing Raga for the Rainy Season (ImPulsTanz 2005).

At a certain point in Sister, De Keersmaeker stops dancing and addresses the audience:

I don't remember.
Ich weiss nicht.
I know you from somewhere.
You changed, I changed.

Unfortunately her voice is not strong enough to fill the theater so it was difficult to hear the individual phrases. In the context, it was difficult to decide if they were trite or portentuous.

Finally the short show just fizzled out at the end.

Another video of a dancer repeating Rosas steps. At least the camera wasn’t bouncing this time. “Have fun,” he laughs at the end.

Dunoyer reappears on the left of the stage and waves his hand coyly. Lights out.

When the lights came up, a surprised audience collected themselves enough to clap half-heartedly. But I’ve never heard such unenthusiastic applause for a Rosas performance in my life. Normally, after a De Keersmaeker creation, let alone premiere, the theater almost roars like at the end of a rock concert. Not tonight.

Another dull deconstructed show, antithetical to dance.

The young Austrian woman I sat with – not a dancer but a long time theater and dance attendee – was even more categorical in German. “Fad,” she said.

Later, speaking with a young Polish dancer, I was surprised to hear in no uncertain terms that she hated the show and had never been more disappointed by any show. One must make allowances for the Polish tendency to emotional overstatement and living in the moment, but even so I’ve never heard or seen a De Keersmaeker creation which dancers themselves don’t like.

Still Sister was far, far better than the vogue of conceptualism (genre Philip Gehmacher). There was dance. There was video. There was economy of expression – Sister did not drag out for unnecessary hour, unlike much of the conceptualist work.

There are a few positive things to come out of this premiere. Sister provides a clear enough demonstration that a movement-based and established choreographer Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker can do deconstructionist and conceptual dance as well or better than those making a career of those genres.

Sister also conclusively demonstrates that no matter how talented the participants and creators, the paths of deconstruction and conceptual dance lead to nought but unhappy and diminishing dance audiences. Alas it is a self-reinforcing process, within a diminished public the more esoteric and obscure voices become ever louder.

I would take an evening of De Keersmaeker deconstruction over Vienna conceptualism. But I hope that is not a choice I’ll have to make often.

ImPulsTanz moves with the cycles in dance. And this is 2007 – not a particularly rich year – dance is wandering far from its base in movement and life.

Photos © ImPulsTanz and Mirjam Devriendt, 2007
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