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Friday Film Focus 1, 2-2: The Wizard of Brussels
From Stage to Celluloid and Kansas to Oz with de Keersmaeker

By Rosa Mei
Copyright 2001 Rosa Mei

Last year, after seeing a "minimalist" dance concert, I was asked by a friend, "So how was it?" And I said, "It was like driving on I-70 through Kansas." Kind of monotonous, kind of Zen-like, depending on your point of view....

I felt Kansas all over again last month in Brussels, at the premiere of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's new evening-length work "Rain" at La Monnaie. Flat interstate driving to Steve Reich's droning and propulsive "Music for 18 Musicians." An exceptionally beige piece, "Rain" is uniform in color and texture, a frictionless contrapuntal study set in an endless cycle of rinse, lather, repeat. Such was my immediate in-house response. In another house, at a friend's home in Aalst a few hours after the show, I began to watch a few of de Keersmaeker's dances on video and was rather stunned that the transformation of her work from stage to celluloid was not only successful, but some of the best dance made for film I've seen to date. The drilled unison work and repetition (common choreographic choices for de Keersmaeker) gave a steady focal point for shifting camera frames and angles. Thirteen ways of looking at Kansas. That which seemed flat and repetitive on stage came to life on celluloid. Kansas just became Oz.

So what's the point...that Oz is more exciting than Kansas? There's that, as well as that few choreographers have actually mastered the medium of film as de Keersmaeker has. Indeed, her signature use of unison, repetition and small gesture seems almost more tailored to the medium of film than stage. Through principles of extrapolation, viewers seeing only one small portion of a unison or repeated phrase are able to surmise what is occurring outside of the view of the camera's lens. This game of subliminal deductive reasoning works precisely because the viewer is able to second guess the move to come. The small gestures -- the hand movements, the facial twitches and subtle emotional shifts -- register on film (the medium of realism) better than on stage, where movements must be able to project into the balconies.

Let's return to a brief recap of the evening of "Rain" at La Monnaie. The movement: simple variations of running, skipping, jumping and turning, tra la la dance in post-modern Isadora mode. A sample phrase: step, run, run, run, skip, arm fling side, fast roll to ground, stand arch, head fling, head roll, arm fling, another fast roll to floor. The dancers: a fairly homogeneous group, similar in body type and use of momentum. De Keersmaeker has a penchant for simulating the dynamics of longing in both the gasping use of breath and the rag-doll flinging of the torso and limbs.

Progression: The course of time is marked by gradual changes in costume color. Beige and pastel hues shift to fuchsia, revert back to the original tones, then lighten to beige and white. Dancers migrate across the stage from large circle walking patterns to sharp shifting diagonals to frenetic activity at various locations by subgroups of dancers. The constant: One dancer remains in beige and white throughout the piece, becoming a focal point, an unchanging variable. In the mechanistic universe of "Rain," she seems to be the most human cog, clasping another dancer to her in a spooning/swooning embrace towards the end of the piece before being subsumed by the group as before. Overall impression: A formalist study in patterns of grouping and regrouping, pointillist dots in an impressionist painting.

Now let's look at an evening-length work translated to film: "Rosas Danst Rosas," choreographed in 1983 and filmed in 1997. The movement: pedestrian movement mixed with loaded gestures. Flinging hair, a hand cupping a breast, pulling the shirt off the shoulder and then covering up again. Sexually frustrated schoolgirl inmates moving in unison and canon. The dancers: a fairly homogeneous group, similar in body type and use of momentum. Here, all women. The progression: a rainy night to a sunny day to night to day. Movement occurs through various rooms of a huge abandoned warehouse. You see the dancers inside, outside, through windows, and behind walls. The constant: points of view shift constantly from one dancer to the next as movement shifts from one locale or camera angle to the next.

What's interesting about de Keersmaeker's film work is that the repetitive, unison movements actually help focus the piece as a whole. What seems monotonous on stage helps ground her work in film, giving the viewer a fixed element in a volatile environment. In a quartet where the same 8-count phrase is repeated over and over again, the camera actually shifts locale, both panning the action and cropping it in quick takes. Sometimes the cut occurs as often as every two musical beats. If the dancers were performing free-form improv, their movement and the movement of the camera would actually cancel each other out, resulting in sensory overload. By making the viewer familiar with a given sequence of actions, de Keersmaeker actually trains them to interpolate. Additionally, in the film version of "Rosas Danst Rosas," you see the details of the dancers' facial ticks, the wispiness of the hair, the small finger gestures. You hear the repressed sighs, the rain drizzling outside, the urgent slide of shoes against the floor. The editing of the film adds another rhythmic dimension to the piece, and the RITO school in Leuven, designed by Belgian architect Henry van de Velde, is as spectacular a setting, and as much a player in the piece, as the mansion in Kubrick's screen version of "The Shining." All the elements combine to create this complex symphony of movement and stunning visual imagery.

If everyone could make Kansas look this good, you'd be looking at Kansas in a completely different way. There'd also be far more traffic jams on that barren stretch of I-70.

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