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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.
Cyntha Loemij, and Jakub Truszkowski in Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker's
"Bitches Brew." Photo by Herman Sorgeloos.
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
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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