Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker
Vortex Temporum
Performed by Rosas & Ictus with a score by Gérard Grisey
Royce Hall, UCLA CAP
Los Angeles
November 14, 2015

What follows is a collection of excerpts from a conversation about the performance. The piece is named after Gérard Grisey’s titular composition from 1996 in which the instruments create a haunting meditation on space and time – an aural spiral – through minimal polyphony and counterpoint. In choreographing dance for this music, De Keersmaeker began with the question, “How can you visualize polyphony by dancing it?”

Grace Hwang: Questioning the dependent relationship between music and movement is one of many provocations that contemporary dance engages with. And it’s also one of the ways that De Keersmaeker subverts expectations in Vortex Temporum.

D.S. Chun: Right, not only does she strip the proscenium stage bare and bathe the performers in cold fluorescent light, but she also begins a dance performance with musicians and later has them moving on the stage with the dancers.  De Keersmaeker’s real strength in this piece is her mastery of rhetoric – of knowing just what she’s doing to the audience and taking care of them, but not coddling them. She surprises us and leads us to surprise, but doesn’t make it a shock.

GH: Until the end.

DC: Right, why don’t we begin there?

GH: Well, to summarize – the piece has distinct sections that follow Grisey’s score. The first part introduces the performers: the ensemble enters and plays, then dancers replace them and transpose the musical phrases into movement phrases. They stage a grand duet between one dancer and a pianist playing out their relationship almost comically. Next, the tone shifts dramatically as a dancer begins pushing the piano around the stage while all the other performers begin a methodic, zombie-like plodding, rotating in individual spirals across the floor, never colliding. It concludes with the ensemble lined upstage. A conductor enters and begins conducting the music which alternates between frenzy and whisper while the dancers sprint to assemble and disassemble from circular trails to collective poses at each extended rest.

And the entire piece ends with unexpected finality when the lights go dark save for one spotlight on the conductor’s hand that stops the music and the movement.

What did you take away from that ending?

DC: Well, I thought it was a powerful statement about control and labor. The fact that he was only conducting the music revealed a hierarchy in the piece. He’s visibly controlling the music onstage, and the dancers only moved with the music, inherently giving the music the control of the dancers. And that to me, was beautiful – that De Keersmaeker was giving up control to the music. It was paying complete homage to the music that traditionally supports the dance. It was an inversion of the traditional power structure of the two.

GH: That’s interesting. But I don’t know that I see it that way. I find myself questioning the conductor as playing the role of controller. The musicians didn’t need him there before, so why is he there? Maybe the conductor is there as a guide, keeping time. And when the light illuminates his hand, it’s disembodied, separated from his role as a conductor.

DC: Hm, if so, then why does it only appear in the last movement of the piece?

GH: Well if the audience is led through this controlled play or experiment, then the last movement is almost pulling back the curtain that was never there and saying, “Here’s the hand that controls – it’s the Artist’s hand controlling all of this.”

DC: I can see your point. But then why isn’t De Keersmaeker on stage controlling the dancers? It seems pretty odd to have him represent her as opposed to having a general symbol of control or creation.

GH: She doesn’t need to. Her hand was over everything from the beginning – like light this, light this, light this. The lighting guided where the piano was being swirled, and the audience was being led into this vortex that is the container that holds the dance. So, I don’t see the hand as a white male conductor’s hand, but a disembodied one. It’s her voice coming out at the end finally saying, “Stop.”

But I don’t think I need to have a resolution that way either. What was most satisfying for me as an audience member was that I was hooked: intellectually, musically, physically — even at the end as the repetition and patterning became predictable in its unraveling – it never came apart or undone. In fact, what that glowing hand did to me was snap me back into attention – the way a hypnotist wakes the induced from a trance – again demonstrating her mastery of control.

DC: Right, maybe both interpretations – of the Artist’s hand and the inverted power structure – can and do exist within the same piece. If we think about what a vortex is in nature: it’s a spiral that happens when two unlike forces meet and form a negative center, which rotates in trying to resolve their different forces into physical balance. This in a way reflects the audience’s experience as well: How our past ideas of polyphony, modern dance, and its relationship to music encountered the new expectations set up by this performance in search of some grounding metaphor of control, all centered in that final, lit hand.

So perhaps both readings can coexist as the dynamic forces whose difference generates the increasingly turbulent rotation of the spiral in the piece. And despite the increasing friction between the music and the movement, they don’t get out of control. They don’t threaten to build so much energy that they can destroy as in a hurricane or a whirlpool. They stay contained because onstage, they are controlled by the conductor and De Keersmaeker.

So maybe the vortex for her is calling to the process of creation. Maybe creation is born within the chaos that is destructive and so powerful. But in the calm center of that, the eye of the storm, we get the product onstage – a tightly controlled form of living and flowing energy.