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Flash Review, 7-23: 'Bitches' Dance
De Keersmaeker Jams with Miles

By Tara Zahra
Copyright 2003 Tara Zahra

VIENNA -- In a year dominated by headlines about tensions and enmity between Europe and the United States, one would hardly expect a European contemporary dance company to offer up a work of unabashed Americana. Yet "Bitches Brew," Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's new evening-length work set to the music of Miles Davis, was enough to make an American girl in Vienna homesick. Seen Friday at the Volkstheater, the piece, typical of De Keersmaeker in its cathartic intensity, was striking for its celebration of things prototypically American. The choreography invites the audience to wax nostalgic for the eclectic diversity of a New York City jazz club at mid-century, the uninhibited showmanship of hip hop and breakdancing, and the beauty and frailty of human "civilization" in the Wild West. It is an invitation which cannot and should not be turned down.
Salva Sanchis, Cyntha Loemij, and Jakub Truszkowski in Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker's "Bitches Brew." Photo by Herman Sorgeloos.

"Bitches Brew" is most remarkable for resolving a thorny tension which has plagued modern dance in recent years, between process and performance. Contemporary choreographers' devotion to a collaborative process based on improvisation, indeed to process for its own sake, runs the risk of leaving an audience of non-dancers shut out of the conversation. In the music of Miles Davis, however, process and performance merge to create something sublime. De Keersmaeker's dancers take their cue from the music, and from a tradition in which improv is not just about process but also about showing off, in which performers hardly exist without an audience which affirms and inspires and moves them to take ever greater risks. "Bitches Brew" is ultimately an in-your-face celebration of the talents and individuality of every dancer, and it succeeds because this is a company full of personality. Each dancer strikes you as a potential quirky character on a reality TV show, or perhaps the class clown who sat behind you in the 7th grade and always held the center of attention.

De Keersmaeker's heavy use of African, hip hop, and breakdance techniques only enhances the work's tribute to improv as showmanship. Meanwhile, the set evokes a worn and suave jazz club, and, briefly, a drive-in movie, in movements set to filmed black and white films of the Tacoma Bridge wavering and collapsing in the early 20th century. This footage of destruction is unsettling for its beauty, and used to good effect to highlight the wavering and unsettled undercurrents of Davis's music.

In her usual style, De Keersmaeker lets us see the dancers as humans: sweating, smiling, breathless, changing costumes on stage. And in this case, those moments between movements when the dancers stand around breathless while they wait for the next song contributes to the illusion that the only thing more fun than watching the performance might be to start dancing yourself. Through the first three movements, the choreography gradually becomes more and more structured, with more and more synchronized phrases for the ensemble, contributing to a momentum that builds toward a stunning climax, and then cools down in the third movement with dim lights and private moments between dancers.

It's hard not to like "Bitches Brew," but this work is more than just an evening of good fun. De Keersmaeker successfully finds balance between many precarious extremes -- between a collective enterprise and individual creativity and agency, between process and performance, between diverse genres and techniques, between improvisation and structure. It is a formidable challenge to do justice to Davis's music, but these dancers ultimately succeed in revealing something new in music we know by heart.

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