Sun Rising on Rosas – Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s “Cesena” at BAM

Photo by Michael Hendryckx (2011)

Photo by Michael Hendryckx (2011)

Saturday, Oct. 19th, 2013
Brooklyn Academy of Music

For those (myself included) who are used to seeing dance concerts built in the now typical repertory program structure of two or three shorter works per evening, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Cesena might be a bit like marathon dance-viewing.  Clocking in at nearly two hours without an intermission, the piece is admittedly long, but poignantly so. The second half of a site-specific diptych created for the 2010 Festival d’Avignon’s outdoor stage, the piece, performed by de Keersmaeker’s group Rosas, chronicles the transition from darkness to light – at its premiere in Avignon, the piece began at 4:30am and ended with the rising sun (its sister work, En Atendant, also shown at BAM this weekend, was originally performed at dusk and portrays the transition from light into darkness).

De Keersmaeker doesn’t go easy on us. The first thirty minutes or so of the piece are performed in minimal light, meant to imitate the natural lighting the piece would have received in early morning Avignon. However, the lack of light proved too frustrating for one audience member, who, in an obviously desperate tone, yelled out to the lighting crew to please turn up the lights so she could see the dancing. Surprisingly, the technicians obliged, and the lights came up, ever so slightly. Little did that poor viewer know that within the next hour, the stage would be fully lit.

The need for light, which this audience member so vehemently expressed, is a core symbol throughout Cesena. While making this piece, de Keersmaeker drew inspiration from the history of Avignon: when Pope Gregory XI withdrew the seat of the papacy from Avignon in 1376, favoring a return to Rome, much turmoil resulted between the two sites of power. The piece’s title comes from a massacre of civilians in the town of Cesena, Italy, who revolted against the new sanctions of the changing papal rule. But, out of this dark period comes the light of the Renaissance and the promise of intellectual and artistic revelation. De Keersmaeker reflects this promise of light in the set design – a large ring of sand sprawls across the stage, and though the dancers blur the edges as they walk, crawl, and slide across this suggested boundary, its message remains the same. The circle of sand is the promise of sunlight, of the continuous cycle of day into night into day, and no matter how marred by human events a single moment may be, everything must be exposed at dawn. And indeed, when the lights reach their full intensity by the end of the piece, the overwhelming sensation is one of relief and deliverance.

De Keersmaeker is frequently referenced as the heiress of Pina Bausch’s legacy, and it’s easy to see why. In the beginning of Cesena, a large group, while singing, advances downstage in a wide horizontal line, then turns around and retreats. This is repeated quite a few times, and before long, Bausch’s Kontakthof comes to mind. But unlike Bausch, de Keersmaeker’s lineup is not exhibitionist. Instead, it establishes the harmony of the group – literally. The music for Cesena is provided by the Belgian group graindelavoix, supplemented by the voices of the Rosas dancers. Together, they sing a series of a cappella medieval songs denoting the story of Pope Gregory XI and transition of the papacy to Rome. Likewise, the singers are not only singers, but movers as well, often performing technical and physical sequences side by side with the Rosas dancers. The result is rather profound – an endless supply of sound and movement, completely coalesced. Like Balanchine said, see the music and hear the dance. In the end, it all leads back to that circle of sand – continuity between voice and action brings us from darkness into light. Though the movement is not completely visible at the beginning of the piece, the voices describe its presence, breaking off into harmonies as dancers split into duos and trios, swaying and wavering with the dancers’ long limbs. Once the stage is filled with light, the combination of music, dance, and design is finally complete (a quiet gesamtkunstwerk, perhaps). As the performers navigate the circle’s edge and burst into its center with flying jumps, they seem empowered by the new light. Towards the end of the piece, one woman sits, removes her shoes, and dances a brief phrase, scattering the sand deliberately beneath her feet. In this moment, clearly visible in the bright light, she represents fulfillment as she discards the barrier that separates her from this symbol of eternal completion.

While the beginning of Cesena may leave some skeptical, de Keersmaeker sees her audience through to the end. Despite the challenges of bringing a site-specific (and time-specific) piece indoors, de Keersmaeker and Rosas present a work that is much like the dawning of a new day – no one is certain where it came from or when it arrived, but all things considered, it’s good that it’s here.

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