When Steve Reich celebrates a major birthday, a simple party won’t do. The whole town turns out for a festival: “Steve Reich @ 70,” staged by BAM, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and the Whitney Museum. Reich’s actual birthday fell on the opening night of BAM’s program featuring dances set to his scores. Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker handed him a white flower onstage, and the audience rose cheering.
Reich’s driving, percussive rhythms and evolving, repetitive patterns have inspired numerous choreographers, starting with Laura Dean. The BAM performances span decades in the development of his music and De Keersmaeker’s connections with it. Her career took off in the early ’80s with Fase, four movements to the music of Steve Reich (Violin Phase, Piano Phase, Come Out, and Clapping Music), and continued in this decade with two additional pieces, Drumming and Rain. British dancemaker Akram Khan’s BAM premiere, his first work to a Reich score, uses a very recent composition, Variations for Vibes, Pianos, and Strings (2005).
De Keersmaeker’s Fase is rigorous in its austerity, elegantly minimal, brilliant. In Piano Phase, for example, she and Tale Dolven, backed by their magically multiplying and merging shadows, gradually accumulate and reorder a series of movements along a corridor of light at the back of the stage. Swinging one arm vigorously, making half-turns as they stride, they travel very little. Occasionally they pause or prolong a moment. The choreography shrewdly visualizes the way the strands of Reich’s music slip in and out of phase with one another; now the women face the same way, now changes of direction slide their patterns out of sync.
These early works by De Keersmaeker arrestingly contrast a minimalist vocabulary with the performers’ humanity. The women tire; they shade their actions. In Come Out, having traded their simple, cream-colored dresses for gray trousers and lighter gray shirts, they perform seated on stools placed downstage right beneath two hanging lamps (credit Remon Fromont and Mark Schwentner for Fase‘s remarkably sensitive lighting). Gestures like little wrist-flips that suggest a task (sewing maybe), the flinging of an arm that twists the body sideways, and a sudden bend forward have a subtle dramatic resonance. As Reich’s manipulation of a spoken phrase thickens and condenses until the word “show” dwindles to a rhythmic “shh,” and consonants become clicks, the women, turning on their stools, make something brave and personal out of the complex routine that constrains them.
De Keersmaeker and Dolven dance to tape. Khan’s work is performed in front of the 18 musicians making up the London Sinfonietta, their instruments glinting seductively in Fabiana Piccioli’s lighting. What a set! Khan immediately undercuts the formality by having dancer Gregory Maqoma speak (very charmingly) into a mic, as if having a phone conversation with someone about this demanding music and what the three dancers hope to accomplish. Conductor Alan Pierson has to whisper in his ear and remind him that it’s time to start the piece.
Each of Reich’s three stunning variations starts simply and gradually blooms with accumulated melodies and harmonies. Khan, a Kathak dancer as well as a postmodern choreographer, shares the stage with the South African Maqoma and the Korean Young Jin Kim. These are three beautiful men—lithe and strong. The textures they coax from their bodies match Reich’s in richness if not in complexity. Dancing alone, each performer shows his heritage: Kim with his fluid hand motions, Maqoma with his rippling shoulders and resilient pouncing, Khan with his precision. In unison, they’re dynamite. During the music’s second section, backs to us, they do their own take on the business of conducting, turning the literal gestures of Pierson (whose music stand they’ve moved center stage) into something subtly imaginative.
The standing ovation for Reich definitely trumps a candle-studded cake.