Ottone, Ottone

Halles de Schaerbeek

A woman in a short white dress, wearing a pair of wings, walks onto the stage. She sits on a chair in the corner, facing away from the audience. A man enters, smoking a cigarette, and leans against the back wall, posturing. For a moment, the scene seems frozen; as in an image by Edward Hopper, emotional distance seems measured by space. Shortly thereafter, the “angel” turns on a tape recorder and the music—Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione de Poppea—begins. The lights come up on stage and the rest of the dancers enter. The introduction to Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Ottone, Ottone, 1988, is an accurate prediction of what is to follow: an amalgam of texts and tones incorporating the mundane and the exceptional, the static and the mercurial. It represents an extremely ambitious undertaking by a choreographer who has consistently taken risks in her work.

On the surface, at least, Ottone, Ottone is noteworthy for its scale: it features a huge stage, which can magnify or reduce movements; 16 dancers (three times the usual size of de Keersmaeker’s group, Rosas); a length of three-and-one-half hours; a Monteverdi opera that can seem labyrinthine in its musical and narrative permutations; the inclusion of additional musical and spoken texts (Heiner Müller, country and western music); and more.

The scale of the work can seem even more overwhelming when compared to the simplicity and directness of de Keersmaeker’s earlier pieces, such as Rosas Danst Rosas, 1983. In Ottone, Ottone, an overabundance of elements can produce long moments of torpor. During these periods, both movements and narrative start to become unhinged and the piece seems to lose its balance. Yet, just as often, there are scenes that are striking in their ability to achieve a redefinition or synthesis of the various textual elements: the scene in which the lights go out and the dancers run across the stage with sparklers, both illuminating and disorienting our perception of the space; a moment at the end of the country and western song, “Jackson,” when a dancer hurls a series of records over the wall; the scene in which two dancers in priests’ cassocks slowly somersault around the stage, revealing a Buñuelian sense of humor on the part of the choreographer.

One of de Keersmaeker’s strengths lies in her ability to externalize interior states of being through the repetition and magnification of gesture. The result is a kind of fusion of the emotional and the physical in which each movement is charged with a plenitude of meaning. Ottone, Ottone, for all its ambition, moves toward resolution rather than catharsis. It represents a change of emphasis for de Keersmaeker, from the exploration of internal states to more linear, narrative-oriented concerns. Consequently, its emotional impact is dispersed rather than concentrated.

This work is also significant for de Keersmaeker in the way it utilizes a mixed cast, both men and women. On one level, this accounts for the movement from an interior to an exterior orientation. The dancers are often divided into couples, as in the scene where six pairs come to the front of the stage, spread out their heavy robes, lie down, and grasp hands. Eventually, they cover themselves in their robes, locked in embraces. De Keersmaeker effectively uses these relationships as contexts for her swirling, repetitive, almost obsessive movements. It is the integration of these obsessions into an increasingly theatrical framework that remains problematic.

Michael Tarantino