National Theater, Taipei, Taiwan; March 12, 2015
Back in 1983, there was a young 23-year old Belgian dance maker, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. She had already come to attention a year previous with “Fase”, which took its gradual phase shifting principles from four repetitive compositions by Steve Reich. Then came “Rosas danst Rosas”, in which she took the ideas further and we knew a choreographer of true international status had arrived. 32 years on, this seminal work remains incredibly watchable; a contemporary dance classic that is both stunningly simple, yet incredibly complex.
In four movements and a coda, the 95-minute “Rosas danst Rosas” is a dance for four women, all on stage throughout. It’s based on a simple structure and idea: the course of the day. It develops and builds as it progresses, each movement with its own particular characteristics, structure and use of space, but each building on what goes before.
The choreography in each movement is based on a small number of very short phrases in which the dance is repeated and varied in order and speed. It’s all quite mathematical as De Keersmaeker plays with different ways of putting everything together, constantly playing with unison and counterpoint, and with the stage space, constantly arranging her dancers differently or having them move in different directions. Mathematical doesn’t mean cold, though. There is a sense of narrative, individuality and even emotion.
That individuality is best seen in the many small personal moments and everyday gestures that pepper the piece. Dancers nod and acknowledge one another. One may stop to catch her breath, run her hand over her hair, pull her blouse off her shoulder and put it back again, or brush her skirt. And nothing is hidden. The transitions between movements are very matter of fact as we see the cast setting out chairs, putting on shoes, adjusting their hair and more.
The first movement is perhaps the trickiest to deal with, especially by those unfamiliar with De Keersmaeker’s work. It opens with the women standing upstage, backs to the audience. They fall backwards and roll over. It’s night, but one of those awful restless ones when it’s difficult to sleep. There are a couple of long pauses when all are totally motionless but mostly the women toss and turn, sometimes with attack, sometimes slow. They roll; they sit up on their forearms. When they look at each other there’s a hint of conversation. Danced in silence, the only sounds are the performers’ breath and the thud of their limbs against the floor. That silence actually highlights and accents the movement and the physicality.
When morning arrives the dance turns mechanical, reflecting the industrial rock nature of Thierry De May and Peter Vermeersch’s music (remarkably, this was De May’s first composition of note). With the dancers not shifting from their chairs, it’s all hands and arms. Now the dancers always work in pairs, albeit ones that change. You can choose your location, but the drab light blue and grey costumes, dancers’ demeanour and repetition suggests a boring office job, or perhaps the mundane nature of many people’s work lives.
The third movement finally has the dancers get to their feet and the physicality that was previously bound starts to become unleashed. It’s afternoon and there is far more sense of individuality, with each dancer getting a solo. Now we see the trademark De Keersmaeker walks, those stops with one foot flat, one on the toes, and those half turns on spot with one arm behind the back.
So to evening, party time, and choreography that is more expansive and full of flying arms and flying hair as the performers skip and turn. Occasionally there’s a sense of exhaustion as a dancer rests, but however fast they walk, there is no escape. The patterns and turns always bring them back, and always to those shifting patterns and rhythms of the score.
Simple ideas expressed in a complex way. That is “Rosas danst Rosas” and that is De Keersmaeker. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. It is relentless and a number in the audience quite clearly found it difficult going. But even those who find it not to their tastes must surely admire the clarity and synchronicity of the dancers. A classic indeed.