En Atendant at its premiere in Avignon. Photo by Anne Van Aerschot.
Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker has been a major voice in the contemporary dance scene for over thirty years. Briefly famous in 2011 when pop diva Beyonce quoted sections from Rosas Danst Rosas and Achterland, her works are complex, cerebral, and demanding. She’s a thinker, not an entertainer.
En Atendant (French for meanwhile) is no different. Originally premiering outside at Avignon’s Cour d’Honneur of the Palais des Papes, it features eight dancers wearing brightly hued sneakers and casual fashions that appear culled from H&M. The stage is a bare black box outfitted with a thin line of dry earth, an overhead grid of harsh lights, and a rickety bench. Recreating the fuzzy ambiance of dusk, the theater incrementally transitions from light to dark.
The piece opens with an overture for flutist Michael Schmid. Utilizing strenuous breathing techniques, he layers a hoarse rumbling under shrill, stratifying pitches. Schmid sustains the assonance for close to ten minutes before dropping his flute to his side (which feels like a weapon at this point) and gasping.
The impulse for En Atendant springs from Ars Subtilior, an intricate harmonic and rhythmical musical style from the 14th century. The performers, using movement to symbolize time, engage in skimming walking patterns that trek laterally across the stage. Notes on a staff, they mark the musical counterpoints.
A trio of musicians — a vocalist, a fiddler, and one on assorted recorders — congregate on the bench. Sometimes they play while other times they simply gaze at the dancers. Soprano Annelies Van Gramberen adds welcome sweetness to the chiseled compositions of Ars Subtilior.
Choreographic capsules — stressing stiff arms, grapevines, and paces that graze and skate — soon become indistinguishable from one another. Rife with supported leans, sculptural tableaus weave through solos and duets. A weightless agility kisses each movement; when the dancers fall to the floor, they alight with the impact of a cotton ball.
Often, not much happens. Dancers mill about the stage’s perimeter. Sometimes they whisper to one another. Other times, standing stock still in profile, they watch, faces impassive. Their experience is our experience.
Certain images hint at the 14th century. A nasty and brutish time characterized by plague, religious turmoil, and peasant uprisings, lives were short and wars were long. A turbulent solo by Boštjan Antončič thrashes against the sober formality of En Atendant. Like religious dissident Jan Hus, he whips himself into a frenzy and plummets to the floor, strewing the band of dirt. One recurring motif employed by the dancers — a leg lifted to the side, hinged at the knee — seems a reference the characteristic groin buboes of the Black Plague. The piece ends with a nude man wheeling about the stage in the fading light, a literal metaphor for the ending of the Dark Ages and the nascent promise of the Renaissance.
On one level, the piece seems like a sophisticated, self-serious entry to the “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest with its relentless physical depiction of musical mathematics. Overwhelmingly though, it feels like an exercise in endurance. People walk out. Some cat nap. Others check their phones. While the ascetic, cryptic beauty of En Atendant lulls in the beginning, it suffocates from a glut of ponderousness.
This review reviews to the performance seen at Brooklyn Academy of Music on October 19 at 2pm.