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Pierre Audi's latest Holland Festival opens with sublime ensemble playing of Rosas and Ictus: Vortex Temporum

It seems like a statement, opening the latest Holland Festival under Pierre Audi's direction with 'Vortex Temporum'. The collaboration between the two top Belgian ensembles Rosas and Ictus does everything that is scarce in the present day.

The compositional complexity of music and dance demands a lot from the spectator, but is never overwhelming or demonstrative. The austerity of the mass-en-scene focuses all attention on actions of people: dancers, musicians, conductor. Far away here is the personality cult or pop-star allure that the art world today abounds in. The unusually sober and open set-up demands deep concentration from all those present, so that a construction of time emotions, timbres and keys, gesture after gesture, as fragile as it is challenging, can be realised. Truly one of the most beautiful performances I have ever seen.

The dance performance 'Vortex Temporum' premiered in Bochum at the Ruhrtriennale in November 2013. The piece of music was written between 1994 and 1996 by French composer Gérard Grisey, who died too young, widely acclaimed, his work invariably counted among the best of twentieth-century music by connoisseurs. After a very brief introduction of Grisey, his counterpart in this work, choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker will speak.

'Vortex Temporum' is considered a key work in contemporary music and is one of the last compositions by Gérard Grisey, who in spite of himself made it to the spectralism is counted. Grisey was fascinated by the transformation of sound spectra, working with tone and overtone, timbre and noise. He saw sound as an endlessly fluctuating energy field and, beyond mathematically or digitally measured precision, also focused on the concreteness of sound as a material and its human perception. Composition then becomes an architecture of fluctuations and articulations, yet held together in complexly evolving patterns.

This fascination with evolving patterns, such as those found in the 'nature' of sound, fits well with De Keersmaeker's work. She too makes systematic use of geometric figures and formulas in her work, including 'creative' numerical sequences such as the Golden Section or Fibonacci. Rosas, the name of the company which De Keersmaeker founded in 1983, refers not only to the flair of tough girls that characterised her early pieces, but also to the geometric structure of the rosette, as found e.g. in Romanesque or Gothic architecture.

Photo Herman Sorgeloos
Photo Herman Sorgeloos

Days after its premiere in Paris, at the Théâtre de la Ville at the beginning of May this year, De Keersmaeker explained her choice of Grisey once again:

ATDK:The title is so telling: vortex temporum, 'spiral of times'. Spirals have become a great passion or obsession in my work over time. I use geometric patterns to structure space and time. This involves proportional notions of enlargement and reduction, acceleration and deceleration. But I realised, partly through writing two books about my work, that I had been mostly concerned with spatial organisation anyway. I now wanted to take time to focus more on the phenomenon of time, "to take time for time".
"When I first heard Grisey's piece during a rehearsal of Ictus, I was very impressed by its incarnated, concrete embodiment, an internalised expressiveness of very abstract notions and thoughts."
"Grisey is of course in the Impressionist tradition of Debussy and Messiaen, but also relates to the serial, repetitive music of American Minimal, in working with slowly changing patterns. Because of this repetitiveness, he does pulse, which has long been a taboo subject in contemporary music, and therefore refers to certain ethnic music. His work is intensely structured, but also has a strong mystical, spiritual character. It is not about quantifiable time, but about what happens when time becomes fluid, the stacking of binary and ternary rhythms, ever redefining polyrhythms. And then there is its kinship with the Musique Concrète by Sciarrino and Lachenmann, to whom he dedicated the second and third movements of 'Vortex Temporum' respectively. Voilá, he is actually 'inclassable' as a composer! And then there is the challenge: how do you make the link to movement? Or: how do you restore the relationship between dance and music, which has existed from time immemorial, yet exploded, if not lost, in the twentieth century."

Photo Anne van Aerschot
Photo Anne van Aerschot

De Keersmaeker is one of the few contemporary choreographers who devotes a consistent section within her oeuvre to works 'set to' music. She gained world fame with compositions that include works by Reich, Bartók, Bach, Webern and, more recently, polyphonic music from the 14th century, Ars Subtilior, interpreted. In doing so, the dancers do not disappear into the music, but rather make a certain relationship clear. The dancing enters into an extremely clear dialogue with the music. By accentuating aspects of the musical structure, mirroring or extending them in the dance or on the contrary breaking them open, a choreographic parallel world is created, which in its intimacy resembles attentive reading or listening. The relationship to the music, not the music itself, is made tangible by the dancers note for note, movement after movement. Moreover, De Keersmaeker always reserves a lot of time for dancing in silence and stillness, so that the body can (re)formulate its own starting points in movement.

ADTK: "There is the line between immobility and movement, and a line between silence and sound. It's about the constant movement in between. Working with different energetic states."

The emancipation of contemporary dance in the 1960s and 1970s manifested itself, among other things, in the renunciation of the body dictated by musical measures, which is why De Keersmaeker's work is often not considered New Dance. In The Song, seen at the 2010 Holland Festival, however, she managed to translate many achievements of the 'new dance development' to the big stage. The full-length silence was impressive, confrontational and subtle. Because a dancer, let alone an entire group, makes sound, and the audience too was suddenly physically audible and present. And from all that sound, music was made in 'The Song'.

It was also unprecedented to see the relaxed entry of the first dancer in the Music Theatre's grand ballet opening. His light stride, the walking that turned into running (or vice versa, I don't remember), was not only in stark contrast to what is common on this kind of stage: impressing with antics or otherwise exalted bodies. The relaxed way this one dancer broke through the gigantic void was a reminder of the possibility of moving from an inner, individual impulse rather than because it looks good from the audience, let alone because it embodies an ideal. Of course, De Keersmaeker has developed a distinct aesthetic and her work breathes ideals. But her aesthetic still seems to be only partly or increasingly less determined by pure visual appeal. On the wikipedia page linked above, 'The Song' is described as "une pièce en apparence très austère". What is called severe and unrelenting could perhaps also be interpreted as a "more human" measure. With 'The Song', De Keersmaker seems to have initiated a further austerity, beyond the dynamic minimalism of earlier works like 'Phase', 'Rosas danst Rosas' or 'Achterland'.

ATDK: "Compared to my older work, The Song is a very different kind of minimalism. It is about the concrete of the movement, objectifying the body, removing everything that is not necessary, 'we strip it down', merely watching and listening to the movement. This leads to a very different performance mode of course, away from the lateral and frontal as once set by the Roi Soleil, a few kilometres from here.

ATDK: The basis of performance practice is, of course, the circle. You simply cannot escape frontality in theatre now, but look at Ars Subtilior, for example - when you make music you sit together. Als a performance should be a collegial experience, you do it in a circle. 'It is the most naturally organised form'. Look at Epidaurus, the Amphitheatre, the choir stands in a semicircle, open to the audience. The open circle, in it the audience shares."

Thus, there seems to be a clear development from 'The Song', through 'En Atendant' and 'Cesena' to 'Vortex Temporum'. The circle is becoming increasingly important as overall organising principle. The ensemble play of the dancers among themselves and with the musicians and singers on stage becomes increasingly complex, although its effect is just a very natural merging of dance and music. While in 'En Atendant' the musicians are still mostly set to one side, in 'Cesena' the singers join the floor, the dancers also sing and the circle seems complete. But then, in 'Vortex Temporum', the circle opens again, this time towards the audience. The performance begins with a classical chamber music arrangement, the musicians on a row of chairs in a semi-circle. They play the first movement, without a conductor and without dancers on stage. Then the dancers replace the musicians, literally taking the musicians' position. In the second part, things then turn around, and the musicians join the dancers on the floor with their instruments -including the big grand piano!- all and sundry moving in a more than impressive swirl of circling figures.

ATDK:"You always try to give a choreographic response to a work that of itself has an aural, musical logic. There are of course certain similarities between music and dance, but at the same time other laws apply. So you try to make the link between physical and musical movements, by which I mean not only the gestures of the musicians, but also those of the music, in its writing."

De Keersmaeker says he carefully followed the score and also did not choreograph the musicians, despite the major interventions in the middle section of the performance. Grisey's work demands incredible precision from the musicians. Both the handling of the instrument and the interplay are unusual and terribly difficult. What does it mean for the musicians to play Grisey's super complex music in this way?

ATDK: "The musicians of Ictus had to memorise the score in order to do it without a conductor and in space. That has been a lot and intense work and great challenge."
FvdP: "What dancers are used to doing?"
ATDK"But yes, you can't compare. Musicians are normally given a score and then have to memorise it and learn to play it. A dancer is not given a score but works with a choreographer for four-five months. That's a very slow process, where you sometimes don't do more than 10 seconds in a day. Incorporating, or memorising, literally happens step by step, day by day."

Enchanting simplicity and virtuosity go hand in hand in 'Vortex Temporum'. There is the blistering attention, the concentration that enforces the complexity of the work, but at the same time the work is done without embellishment, in complete openness. The absence of any kind of pose, the continued work, brings about a sense of indeterminacy in the progression of movements, musical and dance. Never before have I seen this on such a scale, on what is literally and figuratively a large stage. Not to impress with the incredible mastery of such complex material, but to simply share it, taking huge risks, daring to go, is stupidly generous and grand. The way you wish the world was. In Paris, Anne Teresa De Keersmaker takes the applause clad in a STOP MONSANTO t-shirt. A final hint (after her work with Grisey) at the coherence of things, and that it is necessary to make an effort to do so, each in her or his way.

Amsterdam's Muziektheater, which today very awkwardly listens to the names of its performers -Nationale Opera en Ballet-, unlike Paris' Thèâtre de la Ville, is really still built for a strict separation between stage and auditorium. This promotes visual pleasure, but gets in the way of a sense of 'théâtre en round'. Although hydraulic techniques can probably soften the distance between stage and hall somewhat, I am very curious to see whether the intense intimacy of 'Vortex Temporum', which was so tangible in Paris, can also be realised in Amsterdam.

To be seen on 1 and 4 June at the Holland Festival, Amsterdam.








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Fransien van der Putt

Fransien van der Putt is a dramaturge and critic. She works with Lana Coporda, Vera Sofia Mota, Roberto de Jonge, João Dinis Pinho & Julia Barrios de la Mora and Branka Zgonjanin, among others. She writes about dance and theatre for Cultural Press Agency, Theatererkrant and Dansmagazine. Between 1989 and 2001, she mixed text as sound at Radio 100. Between 2011 and 2015, she developed a minor for the BA Dance, Artez, Arnhem - on artistic processes and own research in dance. Within her work, she pays special attention to the significance of archives, notation, discourse and theatre history in relation to dance in the Netherlands. Together with Vera Sofia Mota, she researches the work of video, installation and peformance artist Nan Hoover on behalf of Author posts

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