Would it be appropriate to call Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker sensational? Probably not. Yet the stunning 75-minute solo the Belgian choreographer performed in New York last week is all about sensation. She responds as subtly as a wind harp to shifts of breeze, prompted not just by the accompanying songs from the 1963 Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2, but by memories associated with the music and the here-and-now experience of performing for us.
De Keersmaeker walks on while we’re staring at the simple arrangements of black scrims and the turntable off to the side. Bang! She kicks off her shoes. “Once,” she announces, and then stands there in her dark blue dress and T-shirt for a long time, making tiny, barely visible adjustments, gazing at us. What is she trying to understand, to remember?
Gradually she builds a theme that she varies and repeats throughout the evening—adding new material, dropping some, changing the order, stressing moves differently. Sometimes she slips into a plié; sometimes—whomp!—she’s down. De Keersmaeker is a compelling dancer, although when her company, Rosas, comes to New York, she almost never performs. Her movements are precisely designed, yet soft and fluid; free but delicate. We learn the vocabulary, the many nuanced ways in which she twists, curves her arms, turns one foot in, sinks down, circles her elbows, tosses a leg into the air, skips lightly, spins, stands poised at the edge of the stage in Jan Joris Lamers’s elegant lighting, as if she might jump off. Once Baez begins to sing, De Keersmaeker inserts subtly pantomimic, often playful gestures, hints of character, and enigmatic private responses.
Baez’s 22-year-old voice floats out ravishingly in folk songs like “Once I Had a Sweetheart,” fresh as the new world we hoped for in 1963, vibrantly leading a crowd in “We Shall Overcome,” caressing the Portuguese words of “Manha de Carnaval.” De Keersmaeker was a child when the record came out, and there’s something youthful about the way she lip-synchs certain songs, not always sure of the words, checking on the text that’s projected on a black curtain. During “Long Black Veil,” her stated favorite of the 14 cuts used, Baez fades out briefly, and we hear the choreographer’s own frail voice.
Once premiered in 2002, after 9-11 and before Iraq. De Keersmaeker altered the album’s sequence to end with the young Bob Dylan’s harsher voice taking over “With God on Our Side.” She straddles a chair and tidies her hair while we absorb the fiercely ironic lyrics. She’s been intermittently discarding pieces of clothing and by the end she’s wearing only black trunks; frantic war footage from D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation passes over her torso as she winds her way back to stillness. Then she puts on her shoes, picks up her dress, and walks off the stage. Sensational, yes, in the deepest sense.