Both Steve Reich’s compositions and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s dances for her company, Rosas, lay out mathematical and mechanical systems, while subtly revealing untidier aspects of nature and human nature. Reich’s precise musical modules can slide into apparent disunity and even degeneracy without ceding an impression of control. Even the wildest moments in De Keersmaeker’s choreography are governed by fastidious—if often enigmatic—structures.
The recent Steve Reich Evening at BAM charted with thrilling theatricality the works of the American composer and the younger Belgian choreographer as they have evolved from simple, repetitive, slowly evolving patterns to dense, intricately layered compositions. The program opener, Reich’s Pendulum Piece (1968, revised 1973), only minimally involves musicians. Two members of the superb Ictus Ensemble approach two microphones hanging from long cords attached far above the stage and set them swinging in opposition over a sound-emitting box. The rhythmic three-note sequence shrinks and re-grows while the men sit motionless on the sidelines, waiting to step in and stop the arcs. It’s a hypnotic introduction to Reich’s early practice of phasing—allowing sound designs to slip gradually out of step with one another.
Marimba Phase (1967) introduces the human element. Georges-Elie Octors and Michael Weilacher face each other across two instruments that have been turned by Remon Fromont’s exquisite lighting into the gleaming core of a black space. The players’ subtle movements and the rapid dance of their sticks further illuminate phasing, as one man speeds up his repeating pattern to fall into new relationships to that of his colleague. Our ears take a trip through a shimmering, shifting landscape as precisely rhythmed as the click of train wheels.
De Keersmaeker’s 1982 Piano Phase offers a visual analogue to Reich’s process. The piece never fails to slay me. Cynthia Loemij and Tale Dolven, wearing simple white dresses, socks, and sneakers, step back and forth on a narrow horizontal path of light at the rear of the stage, one arm swinging like a pendulum on every half turn. Not only do they gradually move out of synch with each other; Fromont gives them three, sometimes four, shadows that merge and separate on the backdrop. Jean-Luc Plouvier and Jean-Luc Fafchamps play pianos set on opposite sides of the stage. The women enlarge their phrase, find new paths of light closer to us. Eventually they return to their home base and get their shadows back.
Piano Phase can be experienced as a sparkling current of sound in which the women swim heroically. Every variation in the movement and its musical streambed is an event. And for all the repetitions and meticulous formality, De Keersmaeker never presents the dancers as robotic. Now they suspend slightly at the height of a half turn; now they whip it around. Late in the game, they snatch up their skirts, then let them drop again as they step (it’s as if an accidental gesture in rehearsal invaded the design).
As the program unfolds, the space-time configurations become more complicated. For Eight Lines (Reich 1983, De Keersmaeker 2007), the eight women dancers track separate paths through the taped music within a large, soft-edged circle of light. Loemij and Dolven often travel in unison, side by side along the perimeter of the light. The dancing streaks patterns on the space like the tracings of flight paths in airline magazines—only more eccentric and less long–lived. Performers drop out and drop in, sometimes just strolling, sometimes dancing full-blast. The movement style of De Keersmaeker’s later pieces is frisky, loose-jointed (more like her own dancing in her very early solo to Reich’s Violin Phase). People jitter, come into close proximity, and dash away—as nervy as young goats. The illusion of impulsiveness animates the strict, if mysterious structure.
Only men perform the choreographer’s also recent Four Organs (to Reich’s 1970 score). Four Ictus musicians cluster to play electric organs, while a fifth monitors their murmur with the sharp, dry beat of two maracas. The organists begin by punching out a single heavy, staccato chord, and De Keersmaeker presents a rhythmic analogue: five men striking bold, individual positions and pausing before the next one. The musicians soon start dissecting, and the men skein out into complexity, not to say verging-on-rowdy bonding (Bostjan Antoncic is especially compelling). Sometimes the instruments howl what sound like almost microtonal discords between them; toward the end, they fall into unison on a single note and them build up again. These days De Keersmaeker is more apt to repeat a whole, substantial module at a later point in the choreography, rather than to reiterate a shorter, plainer pattern over and over. Several times we see four of the men together execute a side-stepping phrase, while Kosi Hidama does a simpler, pared-down version of it that doesn’t travel.
While the dancers take a break, De Keersmaeker slips in a time-game that appends a witty footnote to Pendulum Piece: Györgi Ligeti’s Poème symphonique pour cent metronomes. The assembled hundred wooden metronomes wave their little metal arms at us, out of phase almost from the get-go, and gradually drop out until only one diehard is clicking away. We wait for it to wind down with something close to bated breath.
Reich wrote Drumming in 1970-1971. Laura Dean choreographed it in 1975, and De Keersmaeker set it dancing again in 1997. In this (the first part only), a long strip of white paper, much of which is still rolled up, lays a horizontal path across part of the stage. As the first of four drummers arrives, Loemij performs a long, riveting solo—kicking out and wrenching herself around. When the second drummer joins, she acquires a partner (or shadow), Mark Lorimer. The changing directions of their unison choreography recall, briefly, Piano Phase, just as certain movements recur from dance to dance (a drop into deep plié is a feature in both Eight Lines and Four Organs).
This is a splendid full-out display of strenuous beyond-counterpoint. De Keersmaeker’s 13 intrepid company members call out signals. Loemij wipes her face during a momentary lull. Lorimer vaults over Dolven. People mill around brainy, hard-to-decipher ways, join, split apart. At the end, Loemij is alone again. She gives the roll of paper a push, and it winds itself up again, obliterating the white path. When it reaches the edge of the stage, the drummers stop dead and the stage goes black.