A Rosas is a Rosas - an Interview with
Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker

by Donald Hutera

September, 2003

Image by Gérard Uféras


Once I had a sweetheart, and now I had none
He’s gone and leave me, he’s gone and leave me to sorrow and moan
Last night in slumber I dreamed I did see
My own precious jewel sat smiling by me
And I awakened I found it not so
My eyes like some fountain with tears overflow I’ll venture through England, through France and through Spain
All my life I will venture the watery main
Once I had a sweetheart...

The lyrics quoted above are from a song on Joan Baez in Concert, Part II, a classic 1963 recording featuring traditional folk ballads and hymns delivered with crystalline purity by the popular American vocalist/peace activist. This is the musical source of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s solo Once , one of two pieces her company Rosas is presenting in Umbrella 2003. As an extra coup, the Belgian choreographer also dances in each. In Once , clad in a loose, unostentatiously stylish dress, De Keersmaeker occupies a bare stage that is often subject to Rembrandtesque lighting. Her dancing is alert, expressive, sometimes gestural. Her goal seems to be to interpret not the letter but the spirit of Baez’s songs and the tone of the singer’s bell-like, vibratory soprano. At times she mouths silently the lyrics but occasionally the music is cut altogether.

I have yet to see the piece live. Brazilian dancerchoreographer Cristian Duarte, however, has. As someone who studied at De Keersmaeker’s Brussels-based school PARTS, he has something of an insider’s knowledge of the woman and her work. ‘Anne Teresa’s so strong in her solo” Duarte enthuses and it’s full of details in the dance phrases she uses. Normally she works with this structure of phrases retrograding the movement, transformations, complex floor patterns. In the solo, although I think all this stuff is there, I see more of a personality. She is totally giving, and at the same time she is super-aware of her actions in the performing space. She owns it. And the music of Joan Baez makes everything gentle and a bit utopic, for these times especially. I loved it!’

Duarte’s words flow freely, unlike his subject. De Keersmaeker is distracted during our necessarily short, long-distance chat. It is her last day at the Rosas office before a summer break, and her six year-old daughter is sitting beside her. ‘She is taking my lipstick. I have to bring her to my friend.’ De Keersmaeker also has a son, nine. I enquire how motherhood impacts her professionally. ‘The work becomes more and less important,’ she replies. Regarding Once De Keersmaeker says, ‘I have known the record since I was twelve. After Small Hands [see below] I wanted to make a solo. I felt very inspired by the diversity of the songs and their economy of means, only voice and guitar, and by the big and small stories told in all of them.’ The songs have both political and emotional undercurrents. ‘My decision to use this music was taken before September 11,’ she claims, ‘but it is true that the piece is more relevant because of the political situation since then.’ Once has an almost improvisatory air. But not quite. This prompts a questions from me about the balance between instinct and calculation in De Keersmaeker’s dances. ‘They go together, but everything is carefully composed. The point is there is a sense of freedom in the work, not of tightening things up or down.’

I mention my ever-increasing desire to see dance that is also good theatre. ‘Most choreographers expect more from dancers than a proper use of steps,’ she says. ‘My personal feeling is that it [theatrical knowledge] is a very important part of a dancer and the total process of making dance.’ ‘She is totally giving, and at the same time she is super-aware of her actions in the performing space. She owns it.’ That liberated quality is central to Small Hands , a duet suggestively parenthesised as Out of the Lie of No . Here De Keersmaeker and Cynthia Loemij jerk, jump, run, fling and roll themselves down onto the floor and bounce back up again like a pair of grown-up girls let loose in the moonlight. Their dancing has a positively lunar pull. The women perform to a limited-capacity audience in the round. ‘This makes it very special,’ De Keersmaeker says, ‘to have this totally different relationship with them.We’re there very close, not that we sit on their laps. But almost. You want to share with the people, to take them with you.’ Duarte deems Small Hands ‘very fresh and romantic, maybe because of Henry Purcell’s music. Cynthia Loemij is a wonderful dancer; time seems to stop in front of me when I see her moving.’ De Keersmaeker likewise raves about her stage partner. ‘Cynthia has been in the company a long time [since 1991]. She has danced all the pieces and has the largest knowledge of the vocabulary and repertory. She’s a fantastic dancer.’

De Keersmaeker claims to have no clear memory of how she came to choose Purcell. ‘Something about its transparency and brightness,’ she tries to explain the attraction, ‘the kind of harmonic, light feeling it has. The dance is a celebration of this music. I’m happy to dance to Purcell in England, because he is so much a figure of the country. It’s a very different choice of music and use of space for me. At the same time it’s a continuing story.’


This article first appeared in the Spring 2003 edition of Dance Umbrella News

Donald Hutera writes regularly on dance, theatre and the arts for
The Times, Time Out, Dance Europe, Dance Now and Dance Theatre Journal.
He is co-author, with Allen Robertson, of The Dance Handbook.

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