Four women sit in chairs, relaxed in flowing blouses and leggings, their hair loose. As a propulsive percussion score kicks in, they repeatedly slouch, slump, stretch their legs, tug at their shirts, fix their hair, whip their heads back as if in momentary ecstasy, only to slouch over again—all in precise time to the beats of the score.
It’s something between a ritualistic dance and music made manifest, but also unmistakably human, a display of raw, genuine feminine energy.
That piece, Rosas Danst Rosas, was made in 1983 by the Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. It has since been performed all over the world by groups of all ages and sexes, professional and amateur. When it premiered in Brussels, it catapulted De Keersmaeker and her young company, Rosas, to postmodern dance stardom.
Brilliantly musical, capable of marrying technical rigor with abstract, pedestrian movement—and, in this groundbreaking work, unabashedly feminist—De Keersmaeker announced herself as a singular talent.
Some choreographers experiment with movement as a starting point, but for De Keersmaeker music always comes first—whether the score in question is a minimalist piece by Steve Reich, a Bach cello suite, or one of John Coltrane’s jazz improvisations. “It would be simple to say I like to choreograph to good music,” says De Keersmaeker, 58.
“But it is indeed true that music has always been my first partner, and from the beginning I was interested in developing that approach into a relationship with dance.” She’s speaking from Brussels, where her company is in rehearsals for her newest undertaking:
The Six Brandenburg Concertos, set to the orchestral masterpieces Bach composed for a Prussian nobleman in 1721. It will have its world premiere in Berlin in September before coming to New York City’s Park Avenue Armory (October 1–7).
“She is one of the most consistent and, at the same time, surprising choreographers working today,” says the Armory’s artistic director, Pierre Audi, who has known De Keersmaeker for nearly 30 years. “She has an extraordinary way of engaging with music, especially with the additional energy that live musicians bring to their interaction with dancers, and vice versa.”
De Keersmaeker’s major works have often been inextricably tied to the musicians who perform the score, notably the Ictus contemporary music ensemble, her collaborators on 1998’s Drumming, 2001’s Rain, and 2013’s Vortex Temporum, in which each dancer interacted directly with a different instrumentalist onstage.
De Keersmaeker says that her approach to both dance and music hasn’t changed much over time. “I consider myself a formalist,” she explains, “meaning what I like so much in dance is that it can embody the most abstract ideas, and music can give that a framework. In great scores, emotion emerges from the clarities, the complexities that are proper to the music. Not [from something] narrative.”
If she has faced one criticism over her career, it springs from that idea: Her nearly mathematical fidelity to music can occasionally feel like it takes priority over the physical expression of pure emotion. But her connection to the Brandenburgs seems to be balanced between mind and heart. “They were never presented in Bach’s time as a cycle of six, but there is a beautiful overall structure to them, a sense of wholeness,” she says.
She describes the concerti as “very festive music—there’s something very embracing in [their] energy.” To De Keersmaeker, the pieces demonstrate “how an energetic soul is embodied in musical flow”—which could also define her own style as a dance maker.
At the Armory, with a multigenerational ensemble of dancers performing alongside the B’Rock Orchestra (whose members play period Baroque instruments), De Keersmaeker will try to transfer that warmth to the enormous Wade Thompson Drill Hall—a cavernous space, yet a momentous one for any artist invited to perform there. Coming on the heels of Rosas’ performance last year at the Museum of Modern Art, De Keersmaeker’s Armory debut seems like a watershed moment.
It’s difficult not to see echoes of De Keersmaeker’s apparently informal, actually very composed movement in the work of pop choreographers like Ryan Heffington, who has done videos for the likes of Sia and FKA Twigs. In 2011, no less an eminence than Beyoncé acknowledged that her “Countdown” music video was “inspired” by Rosas Danst Rosas. (De Keersmaeker called it “plagiarism.”)
The perspective that felt revolutionary when De Keersmaeker premiered Rosas Danst Rosas has become au courant. And though she says she was once “rather reluctant” to define herself as a feminist, De Keersmaeker admits that after nearly 40 years of working as a female choreographer, “looking at what is happening on a global scale, I have now come to realize that it is still a necessity to insist on the due respect owed to women by men.”
Rather than resting on her laurels after a long and rich career, De Keersmaeker still revels in pursuing new directions. That pursuit, she says, goes to the heart of who she is. “I like to see what the body is capable of in its most natural form, to take away what is not necessary, and to focus on its expressive capacity,” she says. “I think dancing is my way of moving, thinking, breathing, my way of being, in short.”