Review: Rosas - En Atendant -Sadler's Wells

Performance: 5 & 6 November 2012
Reviewed by Jeffrey Gordon Baker - Wednesday 7 November 2012

Rosas 'En Atendant' Photo: Anne Van Aerschot

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker is a well established presence on the contemporary dance scene, but one who works on the raw outskirts of the austere. En Atendant (2010), the first in a matching pair of works being shown this week at Sadler’s Wells, is as fundamentally abstract as music itself; but in the same way music can take on an embodied character and shape, this work is humane in spirit, ripe and earthy in texture.

The piece begins, or is rather called into being by a subtly penetrating solo by flautist Michael Schmid. He walks to the edge of the stage, holding his instrument in front of him, blowing out into the air, his breath only eventually connecting with the mouthpiece as he draws the flute slowly towards him. He develops a hazy but increasingly insistent crescendo as the houselights dim almost imperceptibly into darkness. This protracted and singular act of invocation functioned like a kind of mass hypnosis. En Atendant was originally performed outdoors at twilight (in the French city of Avignon, where both works were created) and although the music is 14th century Christian in origin, the whole work feels more bacchic and ancient, traversing a surprisingly fertile terrain between monolithic tropes like spiritual contemplation, ritual and conceptual practice.

As is perennially the case for De Keersmaeker, the relationship between music and dance is tantalisingly elliptical, yet explicit from the first. Dancer Chrysa Parkinson enters to stand and face soprano Annelies Van Gramberen, the latter fading out of the first of several stunning, gracefully mesmeric solos. Parkinson seems to calmly study the singer and the song, before pulling their tone and structures into the lean muscles, sinews and long bones of her body as she begins in silence, to dance. The movement of En Atendant could be described as artfully pedestrian; series of hyphenated walks, motions of the arms and hands that reach into a space between gesture and form; sudden hyper-reveries of strong armed, violently bursting and sliding athleticism.

Dancers help each other with functional utility into briefly held positions, then collapsing, providing a knee to depend upon for a sideways stretch, or dragging a fellow body by the trunk back into the peripheral darkness that surrounds the playing area. De Keersmaeker allows a play of shapes and dynamics to coalesce into vaguely recognisable pictures without forcing any consistent image language; piles, or scatterings of bodies, could appear like the aftermaths of massacres, or as passion play tableaux, an individual and then a group raise one foot and knee like a meditative flock of flamingos, the adjustment of a piece of clothing is slowed and repeated, transforming from habitual tic into choreographic motif. A thin line of dirt delineated the apron of the stage and by the end it was smeared and scattered, kicked up into dust, even into the faces of some front row ticket holders. This scenographic element became a kind of fossil record of the company’s efforts to grapple with the unfathomable aspects of their physical confrontation with the archaic music.

‘Ars Subtilior’ is the name of the compositional style De Keersmaeker takes as her inspiration for En Atendant, but this music selection is no mere starting point, aural backdrop or thematic colouring for the piece. On display here is a strategy for creating dance as a kind of corporeal excavation of the complexities of this medieval genre, mined as much for its emotional resonance as for its formal elegance.

‘‘Ars Subtilior’ is literally Latin for ‘subtle techniques’ (although the programme notes interpret it as ‘a more subtle art’) and musicologists have referred to the form as ‘mannered notation’ or ‘manneristic style’. This is also an apt description of the almost flawed-seeming humanity demonstrated by the performers throughout. Occasionally mumbling, snorting or breathing noisily, they might utter a syllable in prompt or direction to one another from time to time, scratch an itch or exchange sidelong restive glances. These behaviours were in fact ‘mannered’ and possibly prescribed. But like the crumples and frayed edges of a well-used map, they provide an enriched and nuanced testament of the journey; flesh on the bones of what might otherwise be a starkly cerebral exercise.

You might say this all sounds very academic, but the results of En Atendant’s refined experiments had a peculiar and diverse effect on the audience. Several people simply got up and left, perhaps jarred or even offended by the deceptively casual collision of beauty and grit. A woman down the row from me began at one point to quietly weep and the couple in front of me exchanged glances of wonderment and occasional soft kisses. De Keersmaeker’s technique is indeed subtle, working its way under your skin, intellectually stimulating even as it gently but firmly disorients and disquiets. En Atendant is high art brought delicately down to earth, the product of a powerfully acute artistic sensibility.

Rosas Cesena is at Sadler’s Wells on 8 & 9 November

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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