Friday, 20 July 2012

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker: "Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich" Performed in The Tanks at Tate Modern

I imagined that the newly-opened Tate Tanks would be further underground: the sloping of the Turbine hall fools you into not realising that you've already gone far below street level. The entrance to the Tanks is just off on the right at the bottom of the slope. As you enter through the glass doors, you find yourself in a concrete cave-like corridor of concrete columns; deeper in are sealed doorways coming off the main chamber, and projections showing the titles of other performances, exhibitions, screenings and happenings with visiting artists who will be residing in The Tanks for some of the next 15 weeks of its Art in Action program. At the very back at the lowest point is a closed door with a header written in capitals above the entrance: ANNA TERESA DE KEERSMAEKER - so, we've come to the right place...

As we enter the dark tank, we are instructed to "move all the way around the space" and to sit somewhere around the white outline of a square painted onto to the concrete floor. The floor is smooth as if it has been polished; some people have been sensible enough to bring their own cushion as it's also incredibly hard and cold. There is a sense of excitement and play - no one knows quite what's about to happen, and the threat of sudden darkness and claustrophobia prompt uneasy giggles. The lights do dim then, and a small dark haired woman (De Keersmaeker) and a taller reddish-blonde woman (Tale Dolven) nip round one of the columns and enter the square, wearing knee length dresses that fan out like spinning tops, and what look like silver spraypainted Reebok Classics with rolled-down ankle socks. The performance is divided into four parts, as the title: Four Movements to the music of Steve Reich suggests. The first part is Piano Phase (1967). De Keersmaeker and her partner start to move in time with a simple piece of music played by a piano; the women spin and twist together sharply in synch. As another piano joins in, at first playing in time with the first piano then slowly starting to lose pace, the dancers' movements mimic this action: at first their gestures are in time with one another like mirror images, but then as the music becomes slightly discordant and out of pace they too miss each other on the turns, losing their synchronicity.

The series of movements here is minimal, yet as they are repeated something changes in the repetition. After seemingly falling out of time with each other the dancers somehow fall back in pace again. More pianos join the music and the layers of the same tune become a second rhythm to the piece. The dance behaves in the same way - we become accustomed the movements of the dancers, their shifts, turns and spins, but never quite know what the new variation is going to be; this is what keeps this piece so captivating. The minimal movements and music becomes not individual tunes, or stand-out gestures, but instead a mass of repetition and rhythm that pulses as a great hypnotising wave.

The second Movement is called Come out (1967); after a 5 minute break, De Keersmaeker and Dolven re-enter the square, dressed in plain button-down work shirts, grey slacks and shiny leather heeled ankle boots, and carrying two stools. They sit down on the stools, facing away from where I am sitting. A recording starts up, crackling and fuzzy, and a voice starts speaking, "I had to, like, open the bruise up, and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them"; this is repeated, looped while the dancers sit and move. From behind, their gestures resemble something like Janet Jackson circa 1989 in Rhythm Nation, driving a car and doing sign language at the same time - fast, strong, angular arm movements. The work-wear costumes and the repetitious actions speak of the daily monotony of the factory worker - the same movements over and over. The recording continues to loop, becoming distorted and bassy, until all that can be made out is "let some of the bruise blood come out to show them", and then "...blood come out to show them", and then "...come out to show them...come out to show them...come out to show them", over and over, becoming a warm blanket of fuzzy human tones. (After this performance I found out that this recording came from the trial of six black teenagers, termed the "Harlem Six", who after the Harlem riots in 1964 were tried for a murder that happened during the rioting. The recording is of Daniel Hamm, who is explaining his injuries from being beaten to the disinterested police). This combination of recorded accounts of police violence done to the body, along with the enactment of bodies put under the stresses and strains of manual labour performed to the dense noises of the sound-art-track, feels so contemporary - these tropes and themes are very close to the surface today.

Before the start of the third movement, Violin Phase (1967), two gallery staff come into the square with a huge bit of string and some chalk, and compass-style draw a large circle onto the concrete floor - curiosity is sparked! De Keersmaeker walks back into the square; the work clothes are gone and she is back in the floaty dress, only instead of the silver trainers she's now got on some dinner-lady-style clogs. One of the most pleasing things De Keersmaeker does when dancing is make sounds - she hisses, grunts, shushes, "pow!"s - and when she is dancing with Dolven she leads the change of movement, direction and pace vocally. Its not always easy to hear what she says, but it's said with energy and force. During this piece she is alone, making her way with twists and turns, leaps and bends around the circle on the floor. The violin is multiplied, phased, treated in the same way as the piano in the first piece. As this is a violin however, the franticness feels more spontaneous and more like a jig; this is mirrored in De Keermaeker's movements with leaping legs and crossed ankles. As she moves around and around the circle, it is all rather dizzy-making. Following the tone of a jig, De Keersmaeker lifts her full skirt pulling it up and away from her body, deliberately flashing her mint green knickers. There are other amusing things in this dance: during a very difficult movement where one leg is lifted high while the other is bent and her hips are twisting side to side, she mimes smoking a cigarette, slowly and with evident pleasure; the fact this is being done while keeping her balance in this awkward movement is both amusing and impressive.

In the fourth and last part of the performance, De Keersmaeker is joined by Dolven and they have both changed back into their grey slacks and work shirts; I'm happy about this as somehow the dance is more impressive and unusual when the women are dressed in normal clothing as opposed to the standard dancing frocks. Women in trousers and silver trainers is much more fun. For this Clapping Movement (1972) the women dance in line, one in front of the other (see the above photograph). This is the most minimal of the dances so far, its movements comprising hopping, lifting feet, heel-toe, ankle-toe and going up onto the toes Michael Jackson-style; once again, it veers from perfect synchronisation to movements bleeding out of time with each other, then back once again to being in synch. The clapping does the same thing. The minimalism of sounds and movements here is neither cold and alienating, nor slow and tortuous, but dynamic, pulsing and very human. It is also very moving that De Keersmaeker is dancing her own choreography from the early 1980s. Both her and Dolven are different ages - De Keersmaeker is now in her fifties, while Dolven is in her thirties - and both women have very different body shapes and express movement and style differently, which is one of the things that makes this sparse performance so human. The differences between the dancers, the repetition of sound and movements that are somehow never the same twice, the variations and mistakes when gestures and noise are perpetually blurring and clarifying, amounts to a strange kind of harmony and unity.

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