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Flash Review, 10-3: Birthday Fase
Khan, Alston, & De Keersmaeker Fete Reich at 70

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2006 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- Steve Reich, the minimalist composer who turns 70 today, got a rather maximalist birthday present this past weekend at the spacious Barbican Theatre from Dance Umbrella, which offered dances to his music from three diverse choreographers: Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Akram Khan, and Richard Alston.

De Keersmaeker's Rosas Company opened the evening with 'Piano Phase' and 'Violin Phase' from the choreographer's 1982 modern classic, "Fase," named, like all the works on this program, after its music. De Keersmaeker herself performed the former, a duet, with Tale Dolven, as well as the latter, her signature solo. The recording of Reich's music is the driving force behind the movement which, in the case of the duet, is based on sequences of half circle turns continuously repeated in a horizontal path across the stage, for the most part in unison. Framed against a white cyclorama, the dancers look cool and calm in white trainers and pale loose-fitting dresses, which is just as well, because that is how they must remain throughout the piece; the stamina required in this constantly revolving 30-minute ordeal is awesome. The momentum created by swinging arms helps fuel the movement, turning the body on its journey of half circles. Both dancers, especially De Keersmaeker, are so fiercely precise that they look like battery-operated spinning tops, 100 percent on top of the giddy-making repetitive music. While there is a starkness about the dancers moving in this mechanical way, there is also a human softness shown in their gestures and dynamics, while the presence of four shadows on the backdrop adds depth and texture.

Just when the choreography seems to be getting too robotically precise, one of the dancers will slow down so that the unison is broken and for a few movements the two perform out of synch, only to catch up with each other again. The whole performance looks like a controlled ritual, as there are moments during the endless spinning in which the dancers seem to be entering some ecstatic state, but this is dramatically punctuated by grounding actions such as a skip, an extra step, a sudden stop, or arms pulled forcefully in to the sides of the women's bodies with a sharp intake of breath. It is De Keersmaeker, as the older woman, who has the stronger stage presence and she doesn't let us forget for a moment that this duet is a marathon in spite of being performed so seamlessly. A couple of times they break the horizontal formation, spinning on a vertical axis downstage -- and then change direction again, leaving you to feel that they are never going to stop. The intensity of both music and choreography is so powerful that it is hard not to feel mesmerized.

When De Keersmaeker returns to perform 'Violin Phase,' another half hour of repeated spirals, this time performed in a circle round the stage, her charisma and intelligence -- obvious in how she works the music -- as well as her physical capabilities just make draws drop in the audience. Like a mathematician tackling a complex puzzle, she makes the impersonal, often punishing relentlessness of Reich's solo violin her own, having fun with it, discovering new elements one imagines, each time she performs it. While again 'Violin Phase' looks killing to perform, De Keersmaeker seems to be enjoying every minute of it, uttering the odd shriek or comment to propel herself through the maze of sound.

Richard Alston's new work choreographed to Reich's "Proverb" and the composition that inspired it, the medieval French composer Perotin's "Viderunt Omnes," couldn't offer a more contrasting visual and aural experience. What amazes me is that Reich's piece sounds almost timeless, as if it too could fit into the medieval period as well as the modern. Both compositions are religious-hued choral works, performed live here by the Copenhagen groups Theatre of Voices and Athelas Sinfonietta. Alston's choreography is classical and lyrical, interpreted by ten dancers in brightly colored ultra-feminine dresses for the girls and colorful tee-shirts and leggings for the boys, which incidentally could not make them look more camp. The choreography is a feast for the aesthete: uplifting, harmonious, fluid, pure and elegantly proportioned partner work for mixed couples and appropriate sections for just the boys and then the girls.

Seeing the Alston and De Keersmaeker works performed back to back, one can't help but observe a startling contrast: The dancers' personalities shine through more in De Keersmaeker's algebraic formulas than in Alston's lyrical creation, where their faces are blank.

Bangladeshi-born English choreographer Akram Khan and two other male dancers conclude the Reich program with a witty, dynamic and upbeat interpretation of "Variations for Vibes, Pianos and Strings," played by the sizeable London Sinfonietta, splendidly arranged in a semi-circle around the stage. It is refreshing to see a non-Western response to a composer who, darling as he is of white intellectuals -- predominant in the audience at Thursday's opening -- owes much of his rhythmic inspiration to African sources. An African dancer, guest artist Gregory Maqoma, sits center stage, as if for an interview, and answers imaginary questions from the audience about the working process. Among other topics, he explains that in his culture, dance and music are experienced from birth as inseparable. He is then nudged by the conductor, Alan Pierson, who tells him that they are ready to start. Music begins and the other Asian dancer, Young Jin Kim hurls himself on stage, playing with the rhythms in the music, creating arm motives that build into larger, faster actions. He is joined by Maqoma, whose style is more grounded, cautious yet fluid. Finally, Khan himself shoots across the stage with the impact of a bolt of lightning and enters the process of interpretation, finding his unique but speedy path through the score.

As each dancer seems to experiment with the music, there is a nice sense of informality, as in a rehearsal. In the next section, Khan places the conductor's lectern center stage, and Pierson then stands behind it. Gradually the three dancers start conducting alongside him but build larger and rooted movement phrases onto the physical actions of conducting, facing the musicians, backs to the audience. Thus both the physicality of the conductor and the musicality of the dancers is endorsed. This cheeky, workshop approach certainly tears down any of the traditional hierarchies that might exist between music and dance and replaces them with a breath of discovery and mutual understanding between musicians, dancers and a composer who were certainly not born speaking the same language -- musical or otherwise.

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