“Shamelessly romantic”: Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker on her new choreography


In her latest piece, acclaimed Flemish choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker makes a bold departure from her distinctively minimalist on-stage storytelling and embraces the romantic

Sober setting, epic music

It must have been the late 1990s. A friend and I sneaked into a former technical school in Leuven designed by famous modernist architect Henry van de Velde. The extraordinary building with its uncountable windows and distinctive ceramic wall tiles would soon be closed to the public to undergo restoration.

We wanted to enter this modernist temple not just because we were intrigued by the architect’s work, but also because we wanted to grab what would probably be our last chance to see the original setting for the film made from the famous Rosas danst Rosas choreography by the grande dame of contemporary dance, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.

This unique performance, with captivating repetitive music, was my first encounter with her work. Today I am meeting her at her dance studio in the Vorst district of Brussels, where she is putting the final touches to her new Verklärte Nacht, which will have its world premiere at the Ruhrtriennale festival in Bochum, Germany, this week, before being performed at her studios in September.

It’s a performance for three dancers. The light is neutral and objective, yet the story is romantic, as is the music. The piece opens with a man and a woman walking in the moonlight. The woman subsequently tells the man she loves that she’s expecting a baby by another man, who she does not love. The man responds to her unexpected confession with endless generosity; he says that the love they feel for each other will transfigure (hence verklären) the child, so she should carry the baby as if it were his.

Such on-stage storytelling can be challenging in a dance piece, admits De Keersmaeker. “Especially, telling a romantic story is a difficult thing,” she says. “When one exposes too much romance, one loses the impact it has on the audience.” Verklärte Nacht is her humble attempt to respond to this challenge. “It is an ode to the way people can share their love for each other.”

World-famous choreographies

So much romance and storytelling is unusual for De Keersmaeker, who dialled back the narration in her previous works to an almost invisible level, for the public at least. For the choreographer, the dance had to speak for itself, had to be bigger than the story. Maybe that is why she describes the new Verklärte Nacht as being “shamelessly romantic”. 

“Romanticism is often seen as something old-fashioned. It does not fit the time in which we live,” she says. “It doesn’t fit our lives or the current society. Romanticism is automatically associated with classic ballet but not with contemporary dance.”

And although it may seem unlikely given her penchant for routines with tight rhythmic sections and strong geometric patterns, she confesses to being a romantic soul.

De Keersmaeker is one of Belgium’s best-known choreographers and one of the most acclaimed contemporary choreographers in Europe. She studied at the Mudra dance school in Brussels and the Tisch School of Arts in New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Her 1982 work Fase, Four Movements to the music of Steve Reich has been described as one of the most influential pieces of choreography of that decade.

When De Keersmaeker set up her dance company Rosas and created the world-famous choreography Rosas danst Rosas, she became known to an even broader audience. This legendary performance continues to inspire people around the world. American pop star Beyoncé bluntly copied it in one of her music videos just a couple of years ago.

Today, she runs the dance school P.A.R.T.S, which she founded in association with the opera De Munt. She also continues to create new work, which are subsequently performed around the world. In 2008, De Keersmaeker she was given the honorary title of Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government.

Less is more

Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht, or Transfigured Night, is the piece to which De Keersmaeker’s performance is set. It is itself based on a 19th-century poem by German poet Richard Dehmel.

De Keersmaeker’s choice of Schönberg’s piece may surprise some. “My oeuvre goes from Bach to Mozart and Beethoven directly over to Modernism,” she says, “I have mostly been ignoring the entire romantic period.”

The passion and the generosity of the man’s love is drawn to the front stage

- Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker

Yet this is not the first time that she’s chosen Schönberg’s narrative music. In 1995, De Keersmaeker set one of her pieces to Verklärte Nacht for the Schönberg programme Erwartung / Verklärte Nacht at De Munt. But, she says, “this is not a re-take of the previous work. It has become a completely different choreography”.

Following the less-is-more principle, De Keersmaeker completely stripped down the first production to its present minimalist setting. “In 1995, there were six couples on stage. The couples of men and women were all fragmented, but this time I chose to work with only one couple, and a third man, only for a short time in the beginning. This set-up gives the narrative level of the performance – Dehmel’s poem and the storytelling music of Schönberg – full attention and intensity. The passion and the generosity of the man’s love are drawn to the front stage.” 

The decor also heeds this philosophy. The rich scenery used in 1995 has been replaced with a sober setting, with the objectivity of the stage standing in strong contrast to the epic music.

Schönberg’s romantic flavour

When I ask De Keersmaeker why she decided to again use Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht music and turn it into a new and different production, her answer is rather philosophical. “A production only lasts as long as the performance. Contrary to sculptures or architecture, which last for ages, dance is a living art form. When the choreography is no longer brought to the stage, the artwork simply ceases to exist.”

But she is now also a different person from who she was in 1995, she says, and today’s dancers have also changed – two factors that also influenced her choice. “A new generation of dancers is born,” she says. “Everything changes; this work is a fascinating dialogue between the past and the present.”

Much like De Keersmaeker, Schönberg was not known for being an avowedly romantic artist. The Austrian composer may have wanted to be known as a modernist musician first and foremost, but his romantic sextet Verklärte Nacht ended up becoming his most performed masterpiece. Schönberg wrote it in 1899. But the then arts establishment did not like the work.

“The theme of a man’s ability to accept the child of another man as his own was controversial, and it still is,” De Keersmaeker says.

Because the music was narrative, based on and illustrating a poem, it was also seen as less sophisticated. Almost verse per verse, Schönberg’s music follows Dehmel’s poem. “The music grows from minor to major following the tormented state of the woman, about to confess her secret to the man she loves. The harmony that comes afterwards is a pure translation of the state of minds of the main characters,” De Keersmaeker explains.

Drama and movement

By opting for the more voluptuous orchestral arrangement for string orchestra as interpreted by French composer Pierre Boulez rather than for the original sextet, the choreographer was able to create the necessary space so that the voluminous music could have its intended impact. 

A man’s ability to accept another man’s child as his own is controversial

- Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker

“Boulez manages to bring the Romantic elements in a type of balance without creating overkill,” she says. “At the same time, it creates some contrast between the minimalist setting on stage and the richness of the music”.

For Verklärte Nacht, De Keersmaeker was inspired by the sculptures of Auguste Rodin, who lived in the same period as Schönberg and whose oeuvre is outspokenly Romantic. “Although statues are inevitably static, Rodin’s work shows a great amount of drama and movement. I find this duality very interesting,” she says.

She adds that she was also inspired by upward and downward spiral movements. “A two-part DNA structure going up and down is a very basic movement, and, at the same time, it is something utterly organic,” she says, adding that the combination of these three elements made the choreography what it is today. 

5-11 September at Rosas Performance Space, Van Volxemlaan 164, Brussels

Photo by Anne Van Aerschot

In her latest piece, acclaimed Flemish choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker makes a bold departure from her distinctively minimalist on-stage storytelling and embraces the romantic.

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Flemish dance

Flemish choreographers are considered some of the best in the world, and the region is known for the number of top choreographers based here. Contemporary dance has been flourishing in Flanders since the 1980s, when a handful of choreographers known as the "Flemish wave" drew international attention with radically innovative works.
Names - Pioneering Flemish dance choreographers include Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Alain Platel, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Wim Vandekeybus and Jan Fabre.
Funding - Dance companies Rosas, Ultima Vez, Les Ballets C de la B and the Royal Ballet receive the lion’s share of available government funding.
School - Founded by De Keersmaeker and based in Brussels, P.A.R.T.S. became the first professional school in Belgium focused on contemporary dance.
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Performing Arts Decree is signed, enabling dance companies to receive structural government funding

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