Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Cesena. Photo by Stephanie Berger.
I’m sitting in the BAM Opera House among the rustling of bodies settling into their seats when the lights suddenly cut out. The darkness hits me like a wave, and I slowly relinquish myself to the all-encompassing atmosphere. This is how Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Cesena begins. A dancer dashes across the barely-lit space, disturbing a circle of sand. Then another dancer. And another. I hear the sound of wind rushing by, of feet hitting the floor. These are the sensations triggered by darkness—an acute awareness of presence and the slipping away of form. The rhythm of feet gathering in the dark. But how many? It’s impossible to count. Like a pack, a large group of bodies comes forward into the light only to disappear beyond intangible edges. Holding each other’s hands and shoulders, they carefully step in time.
I am listening closely, not only because the darkness commands me to but because the sounds that emanate from the bodies on stage are mesmerizing. The performers sing in the musical form of Ars subtilior, a highly complex and sophisticated 14th-century polyphonic vocal style that originated during the bubonic plague. As De Keersmaeker described in a BAM Iconic Artist Talk, Ars subtilior, a form in which “vocal, highly layered contrapuntal flow meets emotional expression,” has often been considered “too refined, too intellectual, too difficult.” But much like De Keersmaeker’s choreography, a profound kinesthetic and emotional resonance emerges from the meeting of technically skilled bodies with formal, mathematical patterns.
As Cesena continues, the darkness persists. I feel the audience getting restless around me. Coughs erupt, programs crinkle, coats shift. And then someone shouts, “Turn on the lights!” A few others cheer her on. Another voice yells, “Read your program!” hinting at the notes that inform the audience of Cesena’s original conception as a dance for sunrise. We live in an economy of ownership where the desire to “get it” is paramount. The very nature of darkness, and of dance for that matter, evades this mandate. “Getting it” just isn’t an option. But the dance goes on, just as night turns into day, and eventually the space is filled with light. Does the ability to see satisfy the audience’s frustrated desires? Cesena’s ever-shifting tableaus and constellations create a feeling of ongoingness in which no one movement or sound holds more value than another. Even bathed in the warmth of artificial sunlight, Cesena keeps slipping away, resisting the desire to attach meaning to any one image.
In En Atendant, the sister-dance to Cesena, originally created for sundown as opposed to sunrise, the audience must come to terms with the slow fade of visibility. Eight dancers, accompanied by three musicians, travel across the stage, from left to right and back again. When they move together as a collective, an articulate system of surrender and resistance is revealed. Bodies are lifted and dragged, pushed off balance and caught. Legs and arms slice through the air. A head is cradled on a shoulder, and somehow everything fits. Pieces come together, then fall apart. Is this a lesson in learning how to move together? In how to get from one place to the next? Maybe it has something to do with the attentive witnessing that pervades En Atendant. The performers are guarding the edges of the stage, watching their fellow dancers closely so that when a hand reaches out, someone can quickly step in to hold it.
As the lights fade over time, the dancers shed their clothes, trading items with each other, until ultimately, a body is left naked in the space. His skin glows, and he is barely more than a shadow in the dim light. It’s as if I can feel the charged particles dancing around the edges of his skin. And I realize that he is alone. The weight of witnessing, of repeating patterns, of collectivity, of the will to begin again, sinks in. We are left with a body, with this fundamental form of life. Like light rising and fading, it is both a beginning and an ending. It is a body. It just is.