Perhaps one reason why there was such an electric atmosphere at the opening of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's new work is the controversy surrounding the choreographer at the moment, due to the alleged copying of her work in Beyonce's new video Countdown.
De Keersmaeker has split opinions wildly since she started working in the 1980s, and 3Abschied did not disappoint in this sense. The collaboration between Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Jérôme Bel, who are strikingly different contemporary choreographers, considers whether Mahler's Farewell can be danced to.
The show begins with a pregnant pause, filled with expectation and the recorded sound of Der Abschied (The Farewell) from Mahler’s Song of the Earth. The music is significant to De Keersmaeker because it is about the acceptance of death and the singer, Kathleen Ferrier, knew she had terminal cancer when she recorded it.
The orchestra, dressed, like De Keersmaeker in scruffy rehearsal attire, sit prominently on the stage gently clutching their unplayed instruments. De Keersmaeker twists a mixing desk knob, abruptly turning off the music, and begins to talk. She does so with such an earnest theatricality that we listen, with bated breath, as she breaks down the exact process which led to her making this work. This includes her meeting Jerome Bel, her collaborator for 3Abschied. An intriguing coupling these two, with jarringly different styles that somehow manage to work together.
During her initial monologue De Keersmaeker asks us to read the emotive lyrics to Der Abschied, so with the rustle of hundreds of A4 sheets of paper, we do, contemplating not only the death of humans but the death of the earth. It's heavy stuff.
The second part is more playful, and Bel directs the musicians in a couple of explicit experiments, causing both tittering laughter and for some people to question his taste in relation to the revered, mournful score.
They both choreograph the musicians. De Keersmaeker mostly refuses to dance while the singer is in action, sitting behind her or offstage, letting the expansive movement caused by her singing-breath do the dancing. She even emulates this movement, and that of the other musicians, before darting about them, uncharacteristically swinging her arms in soft arcs, reaching tentatively, inside herself, seeming uncertain. This uncertainty, about whether it is actually possible to dance to this music (many, including famous conductor Daniel Barenboim, think not) seems resonant in her movement, but there is also a quivering tension in her body, on the stage, and indeed in the audience.
The final part sees De Keersmaeker singing, straining to grasp the notes, and to physically hold onto life, it seems. An intimate duet with a single pianist, she walks to the brink of the stage and runs her pensive, questioning gaze all over the audience, her tiny frame undaunted.
3Abschied was performed at Sadler's Wells on 21 and 22 November. Londonist attended on a press ticket