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En Atendant

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker

Bojana Cvejić
Reading time
6 min.

In En Atendant, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker worked for the first time in her career with early music. The Ars Subtilior, a delicate polyphony developed on the ruins of the plague and the Church, offered her the starting point for a performance that puts the question of our physicality, of our mortality, back at the centre. In this interview, read all about the principles behind this thrilling choreography.

In En Atendant you are working for the first time with music earlier than Monteverdi, before the classical harmony begins to emerge. Where does the interest in Ars subtilior, this peculiarly complex musical style from the end of the 14th century, come from?

It feels like a delayed date… To work with sacred music is a desire I had for a long time, but I kept postponing it because I felt uncomfortable staging it–– back then I wasn’t aware yet of how intertwined the sacred and secular music were. Eventually, the decision to work with the Ars subtilior was directly linked to the invitation of the Avignon theater festival (where the production premiered in 2010, editor’s note): this music evokes the history of the city of Avignon and the Papal Schism. Listening to various recordings, I rediscovered my fascination for refined contrapuntal textures, the aim of which is to unfold natural breath and emotional flow, as well as for the vocal expression I have been developing ever since.

The relationship between the music and the dance here you refer to through the principle “my walking is my dancing” which is already present in Fase and in Bartók/Aantekeningen.

“My walking is my dancing” here means that the movement mainly consists of walking where, in relation to the music, each note equals one step. My aim was to have dancers learn the music so intricately that they could know every note of it by heart because they would walk to it. In En Atendant we recorded three parts comprising the counterpoint of this music––cantus, countertenor and tenor–– separately, so that dancers could be divided accordingly, one or more “walking” one musical line. For example, solo dancers take up the sophisticated rhythmic articulation of the cantus, while several dancers underline the tenor, because it is slower and heavier. In this way, movement spatializes time.

Apart from “my walking is my dancing” which engages the lower body, how did you generate other movements?

The principle that complements walking I call “my talking is my dancing,” which guides the movements of the upper body. In the last decade, I have been working on the polarity in the choreographic organization of space and time, relating to the unity of opening and closing, construction and deconstruction like in the taoistic concepts yin and yang, or the division in complementary opposition. These principles operate on the architecture of the moving body through the so-called magic square, a volume comprised of nine points in space, corresponding to different stages of energetic change. The nine points form a spiralling path for the body, a sequence for the body as moving architecture including the whole body or only arms, hands or head. Each dancer composed his/her “walking-talking” phrase on the basis of the architectural trajectory I gave them. The phrase could then be manipulated contrapuntally, performed retrograde etc.

A sculpting quality of the clusters of bodies is striking when dancers cross the stage laterally, a texture of highly refined choreographic counterpoint which we haven’t seen before in your work.

Indeed, these volatile moving sculptures result from the contrapuntal and architectural construction, from “smashing” the space between the dancers, so that the various autonomous choreographic trajectories are condensed into a reduced volume, and bodies have to touch, give resistance and support to each other. But all contact is just a consequence of counterpoint, lines that intersect in space and time. These lines are articulated with the musical score.

How is En Atendant composed in its macrostructure?

I constructed En Atendant according to a time-line, where the song that bears the title of the performance lies in the center, the point of the Golden Section division of the overall duration. With the exception of the composition for the flute by the Hungarian Istvan Matuz––a veritable prologue that introduces the idea of infinite waiting, suspending time, stretching it in ever into higher and higher tones while keeping the low tone by the mechanics of pure breath––all other music is derived from or related to the song En Atendant by Filippo da Caserta. In this period, the art of composition included citations and paraphrases, the same melodies or texts migrated between different composers and pieces of sacred and secular, vocal and instrumental music alike. The centrality of En Atendant is matched by a unified movement vocabulary, a phrase composed and performed at the beginning by Chrysa Parkinson and later used in choreographing all dances to music.

Apart from abstract compositional structures, images and gestures with narrative meaning emerge in En Atendant.

We were reading the famous history book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by the American historian Barbara Tuchman which narrates the main political, religious and climate events known as the crisis of the Late Middle Ages suffered by Europe in the 14th century: the Hundred Years’ War, the Black Plague, the Papal Schism etc. Some stories from Tuchman’s book inspired us with gestures and images, for instance, how plague arrived to Europe with a ship from India, the image of soldiers having black stigmata under their arms etc. None of these images is important to read, it is more the emotional load or physical tension that they bring into the composition.

Interview by Bojana Cvejić (2011), adapted for this revival.