Rendezvous With Reich
By ROSLYN SULCAS BRUSSELS-New York Times
By ROSLYN SULCAS BRUSSELS-New York Times
To say that the choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker has a famously nerve-racking persona does little justice to the intensity of her dark-eyed unsmiling gaze or to her withering silences as she considers a question. But during a recent interview at her company headquarters here she spoke with warmth and fluency about “Steve Reich Evening,” a program of her works that arrives at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this week.
“For 25 years I have had a regular rendezvous with Steve’s music,” Ms. De Keersmaeker said affectionately while seated in an office overlooking one of the studios in the large white building that houses her company, Rosas, and a school, Parts. “With this piece we trace that trajectory, not as a retrospective but as a bit of a tribute.”
Perhaps Ms. De Keersmaeker, 48, one of contemporary dance’s major figures, has mellowed. Or perhaps she simply has a genuine soft spot for Mr. Reich, whose music has been the complement for many of her dances and for part of a 2003 film, “Counterphrases.”
“Steve Reich Evening,” with music performed by the Ictus ensemble, presents some of those works, including Ms. De Keersmaeker’s 1982 “Piano Phase”; the first part of her 1998 “Drumming”; and two newer pieces, “Eight Lines” and “Four Organs,” both from last year. But Ms. De Keersmaeker offers her own curatorial take on Mr. Reich’s work by opening the program with straight musical performances of his “Pendulum Music” and “Marimba Phase,” and interspersing Ligeti’s “Poème Symphonique Pour Cent Métronomes” between “Piano Phase” and “Drumming.”
“The works are not chronologically disposed,” Ms. De Keersmaeker said. “Rather I wanted to go from smaller constellations to more complex, layered ensembles, the way that both of us have done over time.”
Mr. Reich, though often described as a Minimalist, has produced work that is increasingly complex and expansive. In that respect he is mirrored by Ms. De Keersmaeker, whose first dances were chamber-scale rigorous formal exercises that nonetheless evoked both drama and passion, and whose later work has achieved a much greater physical and emotional complexity.
Ms. De Keersmaeker’s career has been linked with his music almost from its beginning. She was introduced to his work by the Belgian composer Thierry de Mey when she was studying at Maurice Béjart’s Mudra school in Brussels in the late 1970s.
“We were listening to all that music — Steve Reich, Philip Glass’s ‘Einstein on the Beach,’ ” Ms. De Keersmaeker said. When she heard Mr. Reich’s “Violin Phase,” she added, “it just seemed like an invitation to dance because of the structure, the accumulation, the beautiful melodies that emerge from the superposition of layers. When I left for New York to study, I had this music in my head.”
Ms. De Keersmaeker, who was born and grew up in Flemish-speaking Mechelen, began to study dance only in her last year at high school. After two years at Mudra she spent a year studying dance at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. It was then that she met Nurit Tilles, Edmund Niemann and Shem Guibbory, then members of Mr. Reich’s ensemble. In 1981 she created a solo to “Violin Phase,” echoing the subtly varying timings of the jagged phrase played by two violins with a repetitive movement phrase that brilliantly matched the music’s formalism and surprising drama.
Soon after, Ms. De Keersmaeker created a duet to “Piano Phase” for herself and Mr. De Mey’s sister, Michèle Anne De Mey. Returning to Belgium the following year she added two more duets, to Mr. Reich’s “Come Out” and “Clapping Music,” calling the full-evening work “Fase: Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich.”
“Fase,” which had its premiere in Brussels in March 1982, made Ms. De Keersmaeker something of an instant European star and gave her the institutional support that led directly to the creation of Rosas the next year. But Mr. Reich was only dimly aware of her.
“Back in the early ’80s I got a letter from Belgium from some young woman with a very long name,” Mr. Reich said in a telephone interview. “She said she would like to use my music and some of my musicians. The musicians said sure, and I forgot about it. Then they came back from Belgium and said, ‘Boy, you’ve got to see this woman’s work.’ ”
His rhythmically driven music has been lifeblood to choreographers since the start of his career. Early on, he collaborated extensively with Laura Dean; later his music was used by Lucinda Childs, Lar Lubovitch, Jerome Robbins, Eliot Feld, Twyla Tharp and others.
Asked what he thought drew choreographers to his music so consistently, Mr. Reich laughed. “I think it’s pretty simple,” he said. “Ezra Pound said that when music gets too far from dance, it atrophies. When I came on the musical scene, the reigning aesthetic was dominated by Stockhausen, John Cage, Berio. There were no harmonic centers, no tunes you could possibly whistle. It was fascinating enough, but sort of in a dark corner. So when music like mine, or Glass’s or Pärt’s came, it was natural that choreographers breathed a sigh of relief.”
It was not until 1999, when a revival of “Fase” came to New York, that he saw what Ms. De Keersmaeker had made to his music. “My jaw dropped,” he said. “Of all the choreography done to my music this was by far this best thing I’d seen. The way that she used the phasing principle, which is really very difficult; the brilliant use of lighting in ‘Piano Phase,’ so that their shadows are like alter egos; the way ‘Come Out’ picked up the implicit violence in the piece — it was all analogous to the music. On an emotional and psychological level I felt I’d learned something about my own work.”
By the time Mr. Reich saw “Fase” Ms. De Keersmaeker had created another large-scale piece to his music. “Drumming” used his composition of that name, an hour-plus piece for percussion instruments that Mr. Reich has described as marking the end of the gradual phasing process that had preoccupied him since he began to compose in 1965.
“Drumming,” the 2001 “Rain” (to the 1976 “Music for 18 Musicians”) and the recent pieces for “Steve Reich Evening” show an evolution in Ms. De Keersmaeker’s relationship to Mr. Reich’s music. While he has talked about his music as liberating through its impersonality, Ms. De Keersmaeker’s work has grown ever more personal and individual.
While Mr. Reich doesn’t put it in quite these terms, he offered an interestingly objective view of her later work. “I think there is often more complexity in the dancing than there is in the music,” he said. “She has developed a layered way of working with pieces of mine that were dealing with direct structures. But why not? That’s what makes an artist interesting.”
For her part Ms. De Keersmaeker said that Mr. Reich’s music had helped her to develop as an artist by enabling her to articulate questions — and come up with possible answers — about organizing time and space in relation to music. “I’m thinking that I’m not done with his music,” she said. And then she smiled.