Dance, Reviews, Stage

Sydney Festival: Fase review

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Staff at Sydney Festival smile indulgently at the habit of giving last time artistic directors more than usual freedom to run with their personal favourites. In Lieven Bertels’ significantly European program for 2016, austerely minimalist choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker — who’s also from Belgium — is clearly a captain’s pick.
She’s here dancing still in her own landmark work, Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich, which she made back in 1982, at the age of 22, just out of Tisch School of Arts in New York.
Only a year later De Keersmaeker established her company Rosas in Brussels and created another signature, much repeated work, Rosas danst Rosas. A more recent production, matching seven dancers to seven live musicians, Vortex Temporum, opens later in this festival.
Artists through the decades so often run in cycles, stripping back the habits and flourishes of an earlier generation. Fase embodies that pure dance era of the 1980s inspired to match in movement the musical minimalism advanced by the likes of Reich and later Philip Glass. It’s an ongoing fascination for De Keersmaeker — dance stripped of emotion, humour, character, musical illustration and even meaning — but to the pounding monotonies of Reich, it’s not always an easy night.
In Piano Phase, she and Tale Dolven swing their arms like pendulums, poised in line, constantly repeating their turns, their figures beautifully duplicated in shadows against the stage wall. Their hair pinned up, in long flowing tunics and white gym shoes, only as the musical phrase changes (ever so incrementally), do we see how the dancers are actually moving in and out of sync with each other.
The effect hovers somewhere between meditative contemplation, even hallucination, and complete boredom. It’s a major moment, perhaps slyly deliberate, when De Keersmaeker seems to quickly wipe her nose!
Our eye for these quirks of humanity is undoubtedly heightened as we contemplate the mechanical repetitions, and the inevitability that the body will always be a millisecond behind the mathematics of the music.
The second phase, Come Out, is to Reich’s loud repetition of a spoken phrase, gradually deconstructing into industrial noise. Now in khaki trousers, sitting on stools under shaded lights, the two dancers toil and turn, repeating simple, upper body gestures, perhaps of work, again moving in and out of sync.
At this point my companion eye-rolled me and left the theatre. And a few others followed, themselves repeating an action which audiences have been doing with De Keersmaeker since 1982. The vast majority though stand and applaud at the end, as they did for this performance.
In Violin Phase, De Keersmaeker alone repeats a circular phrase of movement, swinging her long skirt flamenco-style. At first the 55-year-old seems to be strolling through the action, indifferent to the audience, and here with less music-movement precision than the other works. Slowly though her action quickens, even swinging the dress through naughty flashes of her knickers. By the end she looks to us, seeming to challenge us to make meaning of this mechanism. Never does she smile.
In the final, shorter phase, Clapping Music, the dancers repeat another cycle, this time turning and thrusting forward from their ankles in a rectangle of light. As in all the phases, it ends deliciously with a shrug, a mischievous flourish of punctuation.
De Keersmaeker is not for everyone but her meditation, her tease, on the perennial debate around movement and meaning is finally satisfying. There is humanity, cheekily, in the cracks behind her unsmiling severity and the impressive discipline of her practice.
Vortex Temporum, which she created in 2013 to the spectral music written two decades earlier by Gerard Grisey, is another meditative dialogue between music and choreography. To be staged for the festival in the industrial vastness of Carriageworks, it offers perhaps a greater theatrical engagement after the distant hypnotic tedium which is Fase.
[box]Fase is at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until January 11. Featured image by Jamie Williams[/box]

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