By Marcia B. Siegel
Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker invites the audience to let go of outside distractions and meditate on our own deeper feelings.
Fase: Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker/Rosas. At the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA, 19-21 September.
Anne Teresa De Keersmaker’s Rosas company — two members of it anyway — appeared at the ICA last weekend and rescued minimalism from the straitjacket of nostalgia. Accompanied by recorded early Steve Reich pieces, Piano Phase, Come Out, Violin Phase, and Clapping Music, the dance pushes simple steps into a space of fraught but unspoken emotions.
Fase grew out of a solo De Keersmaeker made to Reich’s Violin Phase, nearly four decades ago while she was studying at NYU. I saw it in 1981 or 1982 at the old Dance Theater Workshop (now New York Live Arts, where Fase will be performed again this week). The solo, or an evolved version of it, was danced here Friday night by Soa Ratsifandrihana. Through her dauntless circling and spinning, I could dimly see the ghost of a frail young De Keersmaeker. I remember my initial stunned reaction: minimalism required endurance, but it was more than a marathon.
As the solo violin motif, overdubbed into a canon with itself, unfolds into different phrases, the dancer slowly walks continuously in a big circle. She wraps her arms around herself as they swing. The music changes several times with little warning, and the dancer wheels around, to double back on the circle or cross its diameter. Her moves get bigger and more eccentric, though never quite out of the ordinary. She initiates a big turn with a lurching backward step and a surge forward. She swings a leg out and back, whirls into a pivot. When it seems there’s no end to the intensity that’s building, she begins to spin with her arms extended horizontally. As the music ends after 15 minutes or so, she pulls her arms up to her chest with a sharp intake of breath and stops. Her locomotion hasn’t taken her far, but she’s traveled a long way.
You could say the other three parts of Fase are similar but different. The dance opens with Piano Phase. Like Violin Phase, a single instrument plays a rhythmic phrase, recorded and overdubbed so that it will momentarily stutter, and then fall into sync, again and again, to create new rhythms. Reich called this “phasing.” Without replicating every note, the dance honors the music’s structure of repetition and subtle change.
Ratsifandrihana and Laura Bachman step across the backdrop, swinging one arm out straight and pivoting in unison. At the first phasing, they face each other instead of moving side by side. They fall slightly out of unison, then merge into a new pattern. After a while you notice small changes in their movements, a slowing down of a gesture, a springy lift to the step, a sudden full stop and start.
Throughout the evening, Remon Fromont’s lighting provides dramatic stage environments. In Piano Phase, the dancers’ shadows are projected onto the scrim behind them, like visual echoes of their own doubling. Later in this piece, the women move downstage into a band of bright light, then into another band that’s close enough for the audience to see their sweat, and to notice the special part played by their fingers, their feet.
After a pause during which they’ve changed from their silky dresses and sneakers to pants, shirts, and boots with blocky heels, they sit on high stools they’ve carried on. Come Out was one of Reich’s first experiments using voice instead of musical instruments. Extracting five words (“come out to show them”) from a recording of a teenager talking to the police, he overdubbed, looped, and reverbed the words until the phrase became music itself, a spiraling, grinding, menacing sound. Though it’s technically a piece of stringent minimalism, Come Out has a disturbing back-story of the civil rights era, as related in Pitchfork Media.
In De Keersmaeker’s dance, the women gesture in unison at first, reaching out and to the side. With quarter-turn pivots on their stools, the women are gradually facing each other, then sliding away. As their gestures get bigger and more forceful and the music becomes louder and less distinguishable, the whole dance takes on an air of confrontation.
After Come Out and Violin Phase, Fase comes to an end with the 12-minute piece Clapping Music. Here, Reich used two musicians clapping a 12-count phrase together; one clapper moves one beat ahead while the other maintains the original phrase, to make 12 variations.
Bachman and Ratsifandrihana, once again in their pants, shirts and sneakers, begin in unison, one behind the other in profile to the audience. They don’t seem to diverge much from their initial pattern, which consists of steady stepping in place, sometimes on the toes of their shoes, and swinging their arms. Though they don’t seem to be getting anywhere, imperceptibly they move on a diagonal from the upstage left corner where they began to the down-right corner where they’d placed their stools. As the clapping phrases come back together, the women are standing in place.
Both De Keersmaeker and Reich have been ingenious in finding new ways to present their work. They’ve extended the range of minimalism, like Reich going from the austere Clapping Music to the lushly orchestrated Music for Eighteen Musicians and the dense percussion of Drumming. De Keersmaeker has performed Violin Phase in museums, tracing a mandala in sand with her footsteps.
Both of them have also unearthed emotional content in the seemingly objective frameworks of minimalism. After electronically augmenting the stress in the words of Come Out, Reich incorporated documentary accounts of travel during World War II in Different Trains and the horrors of calamity in WTC 9/11. De Keersmaeker in 2016 made a score for the city of Brussels, indicating points where people could join in an “ultra-long flash mob” that culminated in a dance class. She wanted to provide a chance for her fellow citizens to appreciate their home after a series of terrorist attacks.
With the danced minimalism in Fase, De Keersmaeker invites the audience to let go of outside distractions and meditate on our own deeper feelings.
Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at The Boston Phoenix. She is a contributing editor for The Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims—The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. She has contributed two selections to Dance in America, the latest edition in the Library of America’s “Reader’s Anthology” series.