Review: Rosas - Cesena - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 8 & 9 November 2012
Reviewed by Jeffrey Gordon Baker - Monday 12 November 2012

Rosas 'Cesena' in  Bern Photo: Anne Van Aerschot

Performance reviewed: 8 November

Cesena (2011) was originally performed outdoors at dawn as part of the summer Festival d’Avignon, France. In order to shock us into the altered state of daybreak, the theatrical version begins suddenly. The houselights blink off before the audience has had a chance to settle, a single fluorescent lamp becoming the only illumination, an interestingly industrial choice of mechanism for pseudo-simulating the first light of morning indoors. Before our eyes have time to adjust, a naked young man scampers out of the darkness to the edge of the stage. After a few moments of what looks like slow motion panting, he begins a kind of feral call to prayer. Shouting Latin lyrics with plenty of gusto but barely a melody, he perforates his song with deep inhalations marked by an alarming, wheezy, in-sucked whistle. The effect is kind of like a rooster crowing in church or a shepherd calling to his flock in a shopping mall.

This outburst, like much of the piece, is rough-hewn and untamed, a thing of ancient times discovering its new nature in this theatrical (dis)location. The second instalment of choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s two part exploration of the 14th century musical form Ars Subtilior is more than a dialogue between dance and music. Taken together Cesena and companion piece En Atendant (2010) – also showing at Sadler’s Wells last week – constitute a spirited collision of secular and sacred idioms. De Keersmaeker and her collaborators successfully discover ecstatic and even seemingly holy moments in the abstraction of contemporary dance, carving these out of the structures of medieval Christian song. The polyphonic textures of the music evoke the time period from which they originate, but also dramatically offset the movement which is, in obfuscating turns, dancerly and brutal, intricately composed and chaotic, inscrutably formal, but teetering at times on the edge of narrative illustration.

After the caterwauling annunciation at the start, the crier disappears and the low sound of footfalls heralds the approach of the entire cast, rhythmically walking as a collective out of the shadowy recesses of the bare stage. This moment was thrilling and even had a flavour of militaristic patriotism, except for the fact that the cast were physically connected to one another in gestures of camaraderie; some holding hands, others with an arm around a waist or with the light touch of a palm to a shoulder. They are a united front, a fraternal band of players, on the march through an allegorical landscape.

Pushing her choreography right to the outer edge of the sublime, De Keersmaeker flirts with the ridiculous; caricatures suggested by the musical source material abound. There are pietas and plague victims, bodies twisted in crucifix-like excruciations melting into abstracted depositions, a gaggle of arguing sectarians. A robustly executed solo by Sandy Williams seems to take on the form of a messianic parable. Williams’ chest thrusting, backward bending arches, thudding into brutal collapses to the ground, suggest a heroic martyred life, and the caresses and tlc administered to him following these exertions evoke the ceremonial ablutions attending death. There are a lot of stories here, but always the feeling that they might be occurring in one’s own imagination rather than being a contrivance of the piece itself.

The universe of this timeless tribe is represented by a giant chalk circle, like a two dimensional schematic of an orb inscribed on the floor, around and through which the action takes place. Its edges, walked and slid through, were soon streaked and smeared evoking the image of a fiery sun with licks of flames and eruptions on its surface. Upon reflection the metaphor seems obvious, the stories of the world played out with expressive bravura in and around a dusty circular arena as analogous to life-lived-in-the-world. But in practice the subtle balance of each of the elements thwarts any easy interpretation.

De Keersmaeker has overseen a fortuitous combination in Ann Veronica Janssens’s unobtrusive but iconic scenography; the transcendently echoing voices of singer-performers from the experimental music collective graindelavoix (formed by Bjorn Schmelzer – also a collaborator with De Keersmaeker on the concept for Cesena); and Anne-Catherine Kunz’s costume design. The latter’s work is crucial; a combination of street clothes and simple tunics, shiny belts and adidas trainers that grounds us in the earthbound everyday, but with flashes of the colourfully mythical. Without a deft hand to organise these various contributions Cesena could have come off as a baroque anachronism, renaissance fayre posturing. But here we have something of a masterpiece, a miracle play antidote for the hyper-real postmodern age.

Read Jeffrey’s review of Rosas’ En Atendant

Jeffrey Gordon Baker is a transplanted New Yorker living in London; an artist and writer who has studied art, performance and aesthetics at New York University, Central St Martins and Birkbeck College.

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