In 1981, I was up at SUNY-Purchase attending a festival centered on the early years of modern dance. Amid the panels and performances, there was an ongoing showcase, in which students from college dance departments throughout New York State could present their works. One of my grad students at NYU-Tisch ran up, took hold of my arm, and said, “You have to come see Teresa’s piece!”
In the campus’s studio theater, sandwiched between student offerings of varying levels, 21-year-old Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker was performing her new solo, Violin Phase, to Steve Reich’s music of the same name. She was dressed in the shoes and little flower-print dress that she wore traveling to and from Purchase. The audience sat dumbfounded; it was as if a new species of choreographer had appeared out of nowhere.
I’ve seen, admired, and written about De Keersmaeker’s work a number of times since then and watched her develop into a master artist—famous, respected, even honored in her homeland of Belgium with the title of Baroness. But seated in the atrium at the Museum of Modern Art, watching her perform Violin Phase 30 years after its auspicious premiere, I feel my breath and heartbeat and mind resonating with the recollection of that long-ago day during the single year De Keersmaeker was an NYU student.
This event is the third in MoMA’s performances tied to the current exhibit On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century. Violin Phase fits elegantly into its theme. De Keersmaeker dances it on a thin coating of sand (given an immaculate surface by a careful man with a push broom before each showing). Because her steps trace a circle and also travel in and out on its radii, by the time she’s finished, she’s drawn a sliced pie—or, better—a petaled flower with slightly ragged edges. Spectators looking down from balconies can watch the pattern grow as the dark floor under the sand appears.
She enters the arena wearing a simply cut, light-beige dress and matching shoes. The tape of Steve Reich’s Violin Phase (1967) opens with two violins playing in unison. De Keersmaeker begins by swinging her arms forcefully to the right and back to the left, letting them wrap around her body a bit; the impetus of the forward stroke almost pulls her left foot off the floor. She does this a number of times before beginning to walk around the circumference of the circle, continuing to swing her arms as she goes.
Like Reich’s music, De Keersmaeker’s dance—with its large amounts of repetition and spare number of ingredients—can easily be linked to Minimalism, but that would not account for its driving energy. Nor would the term convey the fact that the “instrument” is one slim woman alone in a dry world, making the desert bloom, and that this is a pleasurable, yet tiring task.
Violin Phase (usually seen as a section of De Keersmaeker’s Fase) takes slightly under 20 minutes to unfold. Her process doesn’t imitate Reich’s. While the two violins slip out of phase with each other and the other two gradually join to build an increasingly dense texture, De Keersmaeker is more parsimonious. Periodically adding new movements as she travels, she also drops ones from the beginning. A sudden, whipped-off turn enters; a small skip; a low kick that scuffs the sand; a few sidesteps; a bend to touch the floor and flick the sand, et al.—each one a surprise and all separated by that brisk, ongoing walk. (At some point, I wonder if there are only as many elements as there are minutes in the music.)
Toward the end, some of the additions are more expansive. De Keersmaeker stands at the center of the circle and swings one leg like a pendulum, letting it pull her into half turns. She spins with outspread arms. She sashays along, lifting her skirt high and swinging it like a rambunctious girl at a square dance.
De Keersmaeker inhabits this rigorous structure and its increasingly propulsive rhythms without “performing” in any overt way, yet her execution of Violin Phase humanizes its formality. She is a thoughtful woman doing something. Now and then a small smile twitches the corners of her lips. Occasionally she winces, expels a whoosh of breath, or subtly admits to a moment of dizziness. She’s not a girl anymore, but her performance both belies that and is deepened by the richly creative years she has experienced between 1981 and 2011. She and Reich’s music end together in an instant. Suddenly, the silence is immense. Her last gesture has been to clutch her arms close, fists pointing up, as if she has had to grab the dance to still it. From the balconies above, a bouquet of cell phones sprouts, recording the design left on the floor. The enigmatic history of a voyage.