The Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker has always been engrossed by music. Rather than “set” dance to music, she dives into the intersections and crosscurrents between the two arts, particularly as forms of composition. Indeed, she calls some of her pieces “dance concerts”, with live musicians integrated into the mise-en-scène, and often into the action itself.
You could call the screen adaptations Hoppla! and Achterland “film dance concerts”, since they pay as much attention to filmic composition as to dance and music. Take the opening frame of Hoppla! (1989), with its dead-centre symmetry: a man bisects the screen, two grand pianos face each other behind him, Rorschach blots against the geometry of window frames and floor tiles. A woman enters and stakes her place up centre.
This “affrontery”, as it were, triggers the choreography: a suite of dances in which the two constantly upstage, chase, sidestep and circle each other, using a limited palette of hops, swivels, bounces and yanks. He is beanpole tall, she elfin slight, and just like Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, motoring away on the pianos, the dance feels both compositionally coherent and tonally clashing.
For the second piece in the film, the camera pans round to reveal two quartets: four dancers, all women, and four string players. Again the music is Bartók, and again, it underpins a suite of dances built from taut formations and clear elements: slides, whipped spins, tiptoe runs. The gestural action suggests a particular image of femininity – as assertive as the booted squadrons the women form, at the same time as it indulges in slinky walks and schoolgirlish hopscotch.
Made in De Keersmaeker’s early years, the pieces in Hoppla! form a kind of primer for later dance concerts. A turning point was Achterland (1990), with a monochrome film version made in 1994. Where the Bartók pieces are studious – they are both compositional studies and studio works – Achterland is far more expansive, its musical source is more staged than studied. The set is wide open, with moveable platforms and chairs. The musicians – a violinist playing Ysaÿe, a pianist playing Ligeti – are cued into the action, and De Keersmaeker gives much freer rein to the action even as she keeps the phrasing taut.
In fact, Achterland feels like two dance suites – one for three men, another for five women – that first intersect and finally mesh. The men keep hurtling by like passing skateboarders, while the women run the gamut from turbulence to quiet introspection, skittishness and power-dressing. A whole set of moves derives from the strictures of skirts and high heels, even when the dancers are not actually wearing them. Most striking, for both sexes, is the intense dynamism of the floorwork: headlong tumbles, vertiginous dives and plunges. All of this is tautly composed, with the musicians prominent and the mobile camera as choreographed as the choreography itself.
The camera is far more self-effacing in Mitten, a backstage documentary about one of De Keersmaeker’s most recent dance concerts, Mitten Wir im Leben Sind/Bach6Cellosuiten (2017). This is not a “film dance concert” but a film – a beautifully crafted, if more televisually conventional portrait of the musician, dancers and choreographer as they rehearse for a premiere. After Hoppla! and Achterland, I hankered for more on the artwork, less on the artists at work.