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Experience without Additives

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker & Jean-Guihen Queyras

Wannes Gyselinck
Reading time
11 min.

One cellist, six suites, one dancer in each of them, intermittently joined by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker herself. Simultaneously, with a slow and steady pace, the sun is setting. “The absolute antithesis of Tomorrowland” was what the choreographer called her latest: a stubborn celebration of unfashionable faith in an “experience without additives.”

Then, barely a week before its premiere, De Keersmaeker decided to alter the title. Originally the performance was called Bach6Cellosuiten, a name conspicuous in its descriptive, objective, almost understated quality. This became (and currently is) Mitten wir im Leben sind—at first blush, a grammatically incomplete sentence. Or, to put it more directly, a diptych from which the second part has been snapped off at the hinge. In literary jargon, such an operation counts as an ellipsis: a trope deployed to arouse curiosity about what’s to follow. That which follows is typically as self-evident as to no longer require elaboration. And yet, in the case of Mitten wir im Leben sind, that which remains unsaid retains its character as an empty space in need of filling. “Mitten wir im Leben sind / mit dem Tod umfangen” (In the midst of life / we are in death) reads the dark offbeat from Martin Luther’s “literalistic” translation of the Latin antiphon Media vita in morte sumus. Yet the antiphon continues accordingly: “Wen suchen wir, der Hilfe tu, Daß wir Gnad erlangen? Daß bist du, Herr, alleine (Who shall help us in the strife, Lest the Foe confound us? Thou only, Lord, Thou only.).

© Anne Van Aerschot

From life to death to salvation—thus runs the sequence. It looks about the same as the dramaturgy of the performance, progressing relentlessly, powered irrevocably by the lighting. If at first the evening sun still projects a serrated series of steadily lengthening strips of light on the dance floor of the former Dynamo Hall in Gladbeck (in which the first series of première performances at the Ruhrtriennale took place), Jean-Guihen Queyras plays the sarabande of the fifth suite engulfed in deep and complete darkness.
Rarely has the golden ratio sent off such a dark echo. In this lean sarabande, Johann Sebastian Bach carries out an awe-inspiring act of temporal manipulation: time itself seems to grind to a halt. Yet just as steadily as the light has faded, the scene abruptly lights up again when Queyras begins to play the sixth suite: the minor key shifts into the major, all artistic stops are pulled out: the dancing is joyous, the music sounds as if one was witnessing the triumph of life over death.

© Anne Van Aerschot

De Keersmaeker has each of her dancers dance one suite solo. In the fifth suite, in which Bach’s score reaches its highest degree of abstraction, not only the light itself disappears, but also the dance. Queyras plays the sarabande fugue in a duet with only his own shadow on the adjoining wall. During the final part, the luminous sixth suite, the dancers all dance together as a group. De Keersmaeker decided early on not to dance a suite herself but rather to act as an observant “master of ceremonies.” First, she announces the suite by physically portraying the number. In between the suites, she traces parts of the floor plan with strips of colored tape, each time with help from one of the dancers. The silence is welcome indeed, as is the non-dancing physical activity, like eating bread during a wine tasting session to cleanse the palate. However, she does get her dancers to come together every other suite for the allemande. During a total of four intervals in the piece, she herself takes part in the dance, often very briefly, performing the same phrase as her dancers, even though that phrase colors remarkably different every time, due to the personal manner in which dancers decide to invest their affect. It is as if the dancer she doubles is a prism, refracting light in ever different patterns.

Wannes Gyselinck: Anne Teresa, one might say you’re standing on the opposite side of the golden ratio yourself now, halfway through the average lifespan of a mortal woman. Would it be safe to say that death has acquired an increasingly fascinating quality for you?

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker: Thinking up titles for pieces is always a delicate activity; I’m not terribly good at it. In the end, I decided to opt for that sentence of the Luther translation. Not only is it one of Bach’s cantatas, it is also engraved on the tombstone of Pina Bausch, who, incidentally, is buried in a beautiful location at the edge of a wood not far from Gladbeck. That’s where I first noticed it. Also, her work often speaks to that same crossover of death and life, a zest for life and melancholy. This is especially true for Café Müller, where the presence of death is almost palpable.

Humans might differ internally, of course, yet there is one thing that unites each and every one of us: the fact of mortality. Not only do we share it, we also know it. It defines us, it demarcates us, it gives us a sort of tragic insight into our own existence that animals lack. Beyond that, the consciousness of humankind has developed to such an extent that we are simultaneously aware of our finiteness yet still capable of thinking out a concept such as “infinity.” I believe Bach was uniquely capable of catching that tension between “actual” finiteness and imagined infinity.

As for his own life, Bach was perpetually surrounded by death. He lost his parents at the age of nine. Of the twenty children his wife bore for him, ten died. Most likely he wrote the suites during his time as the Kapellmeister in Köthen, just after the death of his first wife. He also continuously wrote music for funerals. There is a letter in which Bach complains that the air is too healthy and not enough people are dying, such that he is not earning the premiums he normally does. He made a living out of death.

Jean-Guihen Queyras: Additionally, the era Bach lived in was profoundly marked by death. Bach was born about forty years after the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), which claimed a toll of between six and twelve million victims. In certain areas of Germany the population was halved, or worse. It was a traumatic experience for the German nation, to this very day in fact.

ATDK: Yet the presence of death in Bach’s work does not necessarily create an atmosphere of despondency or doom. He manages to endow death—an event that is at once both extremely concrete and extremely abstract—with a determinate figure in his music. Bach’s mastery has rarely been surpassed in that respect: to embody abstraction, while at the same time sticking to a formalism that remains embedded in a human element. That is why I adore choreography, because you can literally embody abstract ideas. It is the only art capable of “incarnation,” so to speak.

WG: Why is abstraction a value praiseworthy in and of itself?

ATDK: As a term, “abstraction” essentially means to remove. It is the act of removing as much as possible, to only retain material that is most essential. Ridding the world of noise, ridding the world of anecdotal elements that might reduce any interpretation to the mere recognition of situations. The danger of abstraction, of course, is that one might be tempted to remove too much. Yet I’m talking about an abstraction that takes place on the level of structure, and the rhetoric of movements. There seems to me something paradoxical about this abstraction: we remove something for the sake of simplicity, but we also remove something to make room. Room for the imagination of the audience, room to allow for these differing interpretations. There is something generous about the act of abstraction as well: simultaneously, you take something away and provide space for imagination to roam more freely. Of course, dance is still dance, no matter how strongly abstracted your ideas might be. You still need to be able to dance the piece in the end—as such, dance is always concrete. It concerns bodies moving in space and time, often in line with a few central axes.

On the one hand, the vertical axis: we repose on the Earth’s surface and reach for the heavens. That is fundamental human fact, following the very logic of our spine. We are the primates that walk upright. That trait defines us, also in relation to the Earth and the heavens. That might sound rather abstracted, but at the same time it shares a very strong emotional connotation: reaching up is an act that requires a considerable amount of energy. When do we drop back to Earth? Answer: when we surrender, or when we go to sleep, or in case of our death, when consciousness abandons us. Yet the horizontal axis is at least as important as the vertical one: it concerns the social dimension, the act of stretching our arms out to the other, across empty space, onto the other dancer. In the same way, these axes converge in their abstract quality—they both tell us something about the way in which dancers are positioned in space, about how they relate to each other in space, and yet that abstraction is always susceptible to an emotional or even symbolic inflection. Not that it has to, but it remains perpetually possible. A similar connection between abstract laws and emotional connotation is also visible in Bach’s work, in his specific approach to harmony. Even in the case of music without words, lacking a singing voice, he deploys musical rhetoric to create tension.

© Anne Van Aerschot

WG: Would you say that Bach’s abstract music therefore also retains narrative character at the same time?

ATDK: Circumstances made it so that Bach, sadly enough, was never asked to write an opera. Yet when one looks at his cantatas, and how he managed to impute the words with such a maximal power of expression, through his supreme command of musical rhetoric, this lack seems less tragic. His approach to harmony, the style in which he writes out his melody, is grafted integrally onto the ideas in the sung text. His music betrays an occupation with life and death, the relationship between humans and gods. If Bach was apt to toy with mathematics in his music—and we know that he did—it is not simply a question of playing a game of numbers and ratios. The game is rather the expression of a worldview, composed to the greater honor and glory of the divine.

WG: And just as Bach provides his cantatas with a musical narrative, he does the same in the cello suites?

JGQ: Bach guides you, as a listener, through a series of emotions and experiences. The order in which he does this betrays the piece as an intentional construct. The first cello suite opens with a prelude that sounds like a gently babbling brook, a Bach in German—Bach enjoyed these kinds of plays on words. The music is meant to convey an idyllic harmony between humankind and nature. Afterward, the music is toned down. The second suite, in minor, is more introspective, also more melancholy. Yet that reclusive passage is temporary, since in the third suite, again in major, the joie de vivre literally jumps out from the musical score. What follows is a solemn, cathedral-like fourth suite. The fifth suite, again in minor, opens with a second prelude, French style, with an unmistakably declaratory character. It is the suite that contains most of the drama: it seems as if it wants to dispel the chaos of the Thirty Years’ War.

The prelude of this suite is also the only fugue in the entire piece. In the sarabande, in turn, Bach radicalizes the ambiguous relationship between harmony and melody to an uttermost extent. The harmony itself becomes enigmatic; at times we feel as if our sense of minor and major is in a state of travesty. The music is close to what Anton Webern did to composition in the twentieth century: stretching out the intervals, ripping apart lines of descending half notes and spreading them over different octaves. As a result, the cohesion of the piece itself starts to crumble, which at times might seem disorienting to listeners. Yet, after this de profundis, Bach crowns the suite with an almost ecstatic exaltation of life. I, for one, prefer to compare it with the chiming of Easter bells. This final suite was written for a five-string instrument, which makes the register expand upward, adding new, lighter colors to the palette. It is as if the universe has suddenly expanded by a couple of notches.

WG: Bach himself gave his suites the title “Sei suites a violoncello solo senza basso.” Is it strange to emphasize Bach’s intention for this solo to be written for a bass instrument (the cello) precisely a senza basso, “without bass”?

JGQ: The title is a bit cocky, I admit, since the violoncello indeed isn’t usually a solo instrument. It certainly wasn’t back in Bach’s time. Typically, it played a rather minor role in baroque music: that of basso, in other words. It thus has a Houdini-like show-off sound to it, even something Diego Maradona–like: bounce the ball twice on the heel, embarrass two defenders in the process, hold the ball with your head, and then bend it into the goal. He seems to say, “Watch me net it!”

The most telling anecdote about Bach is the story of his application for a position as a church organist. The candidate before him was laboring away on a two- or three-part fugue. When it was Bach’s turn, he simply came up with a six-part fugue, four with the hands, a fifth with the feet, and the sixth he took care of by playing the keys with a ruler stuck between his teeth. The cello suites demonstrate something similar, though in a subtler manner. Not simply because the cello is an atypical solo instrument—it also is entirely unsuitable for the kind of polyphonic music Bach wrote. Harmonies and chords need to be suggested by breaking their conventional structure. Bach’s cello suites are in fact an astonishing feat of musical illusionism: he wrote a single-part line that created the illusion of being polyphonic.

This tendency is at its most pronounced in the single-line fugue of the fifth suite. The expression “single-line fugue” is in fact a contradiction in terms, since a fugue, by definition, is meant to be polyphonic. And yet Bach manages to pull off the trick by slyly inserting certain harmonic suggestions into the implicit harmony. The bassline is never enunciated explicitly, but is always there suggestively. Of course our brain eagerly plays along with this game, since we are structurally determined to do so: with each melody we hear, we automatically hear the “hidden” bass line, which helps us in putting that very melody into harmonic perspective.

ATDK: I must confess: my eyes welled up when hearing this. I’m afraid I have a weakness for a hidden order, an invisible fundamental mechanism. Jean-Guihen wrote down the hidden bass line for all six of the suites. It played a fundamental role in putting together our dramaturgy.

WG: Do we even know why Bach wrote his cello suites?

JGQ: Bach exerts two specific character traits that can explain why he subjected himself to such a forbiddingly difficult mission. As far as we know, no particular actor filed a request for these cello suites, nobody commissioned them, nobody paid for them. It was, therefore, something Bach did just for himself. Of course, there is his tendency to put his skills on display and his desire to try the impossible, but yet more important is his predilection to build something great from little material: the scarcer the materials, the bigger the challenge. He finds a little pebble and wonders: How can I build an enormous castle out of this? This is certainly true for his fugues: he always started with simple, at times utterly banal, material. Bach didn’t invent the fugue, but in his hands it expanded into a form capable of unprecedented complexity and originality. The same holds for the cello suites: How can I write two hours’ worth of exciting music for an utterly recalcitrant bass instrument? One can feel, emanating from the score, the joy he takes in this impossible mission.

© Anne Van Aerschot

WG: The curious thing is that one never senses these limits you mentioned. Bach managed to give the piece an air of effortlessness and absolute freedom while its actual format is in fact extremely limited in nature.

JGQ: How he pulled it off is indeed difficult to explain. He does allow for the performer to dance around in the music as if unencumbered by gravity. He does so by composing a sequence in which he perfectly joins harmony and melody. Most revealing, I think, is my own experience when playing these suites. As the performer of the piece, you are overcome by a sense of traveling through the consciousness of different characters, each of whom you subsequently lend your voice to. Yet simultaneously you also remain the narrator of the story. It is still a one-person show, but one that includes several characters.

Apart from that fact, it is also simply astonishing what takes places in one’s head when playing this piece. That doesn’t imply you are distracted. Precisely because of your state of uttermost concentration, parts of your brain are activated that have nothing to do with the music. As if also your consciousness, or your subconscious, if I may, is broken up into different voices. Certain youthful memories surface, sensations from yesteryear, or you gain an extremely sharp awareness of details in the here and now. The music brings out these different voices; we always feel ourselves to be a collection of I’s rather than a unitary subject.

ATDK: Dancing has a similar effect. It is about creating a form of fluid consciousness. While dancing one constantly moves one’s focus. At times it is on your pinkie finger, placing it in relation with a detail in the music; at other times you dance from your lower back, or you happen to see something through the window in the distance. The cord drawn between you and that point plunges you into your next movement, a distant memory resurfaces, and you decide to incorporate it into your dance. Even when dancing a solo, you in fact never dance on your own. I’m always amazed at that strange state of fierce alertness brought about by this activity: at the same time, I think about my heel, I feel how I put it down, I remember my mother or the very first time I got to perform Fase. You are continuously breathing in both the present and the past. That, too, is a form of incarnation: one dances one’s past, since it is still there in the present.

WG: Is it a salto mortale to compose a choreography to these cello suites?

ATDK: To choreographers, Bach’s music is always an invitation and a challenge wrapped into one. It is explicitly danceable music—certainly the suites, of which the parts used to refer to court dances—yet at times it is also unfathomably abstract and complex. The first thing Jean-Guihen and I did together was to engage in a thorough analysis of the musical score. This analysis of the underlying harmony of the piece helped shape the entire dramaturgy.

WG: No matter how much dance and music are connected, choreography always involves a certain translational battle. How did you go about that?

ATDK: Bach’s music is extremely structured, yet never truly systematic. He utilizes rules that he stretches and breaks time and again. You also need rules in choreography—one always needs rules to be able to play. The translational battle from the musical form to the physical and spatial form are just that: laying down the rules. Like with minor or major, or the association of emotional qualities with the rising or falling nature of melodies, one can connect emotional qualities to movements. I usually associate “major” with forward movements, “minor” with backward movements. A backward movement we associate, for instance, with the past, or with introspection. Not that this connotation is indispensable in order to decode a dance, but it does speak to our imagination: it can be strictly mathematical or geometrical, or it can be emotional. It doesn’t matter.

There are yet other ways to deal with the very real tension between major and minor keys in Bach. A movement in major has a feel of opening; in minor it conveys a sense of closure.

WG: How does this translate into your “casting” of the dancers to their respective suites?

ATDK: Every dancer, by nature, possesses a certain dominant affect, which I have a tried to amplify to make it meet the dominant affect in the music. The separate parts of the suite, the dances, are guided by their own separate rules. The dances with the courantes start from a running movement, and the gigues present some kind of “clown dances”—they have something comically congenial about them, a bit like those Irish river dances. In truth, I find it absolutely delightful to watch. These dancers all doing the same thing, absolute power and absolute control, the energy emanating from it.

© Anne Van Aerschot

While we were coming up with material for the allemandes, we used a system inspired by Trisha Brown: I “throw” a movement into the group just once, and the dancers have to “catch” it instantaneously, and then reproduce it from memory. Every dancer sees or selects different details, so what you have is one and the same movement filtered in entirely different ways four times. This, of course, is a result of the physical personality of the dancer. You embrace the “human noise” and deploy it to arrive at an effect that has an element of both uniformity and diversity to it. The material in question is subsequently fixated so that the same movement material can become the bearer of extremely divergent affects.

The movements also acquire an element of polyphony by thinking them out in different layers. The stepping pattern, for instance, is slotted onto the hidden bass line that one could see as the supporting tenor line. On top of that, there is a faster cantus line with a recognizable rhythmic pattern that latches onto the faster dancing patterns in the music. In the sarabandes I use a different system. There, the spatial positioning of the dancer is linked to the harmonic structure, more specifically the circle of fifths: the sol refers to the Earth, the do to the heavens, and so on. There are indeed translational battles to be waged, and rules to be observed. One could not simply do n’importe quoi. Only when the rules have been set in place can one truly start to play.

WG: Is it important that the audience is aware of these rules?

ATDK: Of course not. Such knowledge may not even be desirable. What one does become aware of is a precision that is only possible when the rules are also precisely set. Evidently, it also helps to give consistency and direction to the dancer’s performance. The floor plan is also very important in this. Which, by the way, has been the same since Vortex Temporum. I also used it in Rilke and in the Così fan tutte: a spiral, unfolding anticlockwise, steadily forming increasingly larger pentagrams. To tape these spirals has become a kind of “refrain” to the whole of the piece, taking place between the suites. Previously, the floor pattern often remained implicit or invisible. Now we uncover the very tools with which the piece was made. It renders the performance even more naked by also showing this element.

WG: You choose to dance in an empty decor, without amplified instruments, and, if possible, in natural light.

ATDK: I believe that is one of the key ambitions of this performance: to demonstrate the human potential of dance using a minimum of added effects or visual embroidery. I don’t see the need for additives. One could say that this performance is the absolute antithesis of an event like Tomorrowland. Everything is kept to a minimum, a celebration of nakedness. That probably also renders my work very non-contemporary. Maybe “Yesterdayland” [laughs] would do as a term, but I do hope that conveys the feeling.

WG: You don’t hesitate to present your work as “non-contemporary,” but perhaps that is also what makes it so contemporary. You defend values that are indeed contrary to those of Tomorrowland. It’s almost as if you were doing politics.

ATDK: I don’t intend anything in a pedantic or moralizing way. I simply happen to find nakedness appealing. Plain boiled rice I find much tastier than rice covered with a multitude of sauces. I find it hard to endure junk at my age. Simply because it’s not necessary. Maybe that speaks to my proclivity for abstraction, my tendency to stick to the essential. I believe that the human being, even in times like these—especially in times like these—is capable of many things: tenderness, depth, concentration. Of attention as well, which is becoming an increasingly scarce good these days. Without attention, there can be no love. That is also what Bach’s final suite conveys, according to Jean-Guihen: celebrating l’amour universel. I’d gladly agree.