New York

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker

The Kitchen

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Rosas Dance Company came to New York to present their latest work, Stella, 1990, with trunks full of vintage clothing, much of which was draped over wooden scaffolding across the back of The Kitchen’s dance floor, so that front stage looked like backstage. Before opening night, the costumes of the five dancers were stolen, and an afternoon’s shopping spree yielded replacements five black suits that were short-skirted, tight-waisted, sexy, and very New York.

This company of Europeans in Manhattan’s native dress also wore signature high heels, the kind that Barbie (and Pina Bausch dancers) rarely remove from their overarched feet. And just like Barbie (and sometimes Bausch), they repeatedly changed costumes, seeming always to ask, “How do I look?” and “What should I wear?” but never “Who am I?” The layering of clothes over porcelain skin had nothing to do with separating appearance from. substance; rather it suggested a postadolescent vanity.

Work by de Keersmaeker seen previously in this country was typically more brittle—as fast-paced and intense as Stella but less self-conscious and less overtly fashionable. Here, even the exciting roll in unison of the dancers across the stage looked like a bone scraping tumble of break dancers at a city street fair. Despite the elegant stage design, this work was curiously lacking in choreographic conversation. Dancers paced the outer rim of the stage space, slamming a door that seemed to take them off our stage and onto another. They rushed at the makeshift walls to kick with a foot or beat with a hand, but the sum of movements was indecisive. Only the tick tock of the metronomes a hundred of them, like miniature sentinels, created a no-man’s-land between dancers and audience clamored together at one point to give a sense of haphazard orchestration.

The sacrifice of choreography in favor of narrative in this work inevitably begs direct comparison with the work of Bausch, who also recently performed in town. Both portray distraught women who revel in their hysteria as a means of creating a defensive wall between themselves and their indifferent menfolk. In Bausch’s case, the men dance in packs and mechanically support and drop the women. In de Keersmaeker’s, the men are nowhere in sight. Women cry in vain, inflict violence on themselves (one falls off a pyramid of stacked crates in the opening scene), and pout and pose with desire and hatred, but they do not even venture to the edge of the abyss that separates the sexes.

Like Bausch, de Keersmaeker encourages her dancers to look into their own lives for the “material” of the work, and, indeed, the women tell their own stories in quite distinct ways. Emotionally, as well as sensuously, they conjure up many different female voices. But while Bausch and many of her dancers are in their mid-forties, de Keersmaeker and her troupe are much younger. Thus Stella has the coquettishness, and much of the naiveté, of those playing the dating game, while Bausch’s dancers, in, for example, Palermo, Palermo, 1990, deal with the more battered and less thoroughly egotistical emotions that usually emerge from relationships over time.

In the program notes for Stella, we learn that texts spoken by the dancers are extracts from Runosuke Akutagawa’s Rashomon, Goethe’s Stella, and Tennessee Williams’ screenplay of A Streetcar Named Desire. While these references are titillating, they do not drive the choreography. For while many in theater consider Rashomon’s lessons essential to the culture of story telling, there is actually little evidence in this piece of the choreographer’s stated passion for the Japanese writer. Nor does Streetcar give much physical presence to the words spoken; instead of finding a physical equivalent to Williams’ unsettling text, as Jane Comfort has done in her important work Deportment, 1990, a pretty French woman in underwear merely makes the scene adorable.

De Keersmaeker’s considerable ambitions as a choreographer of existential dances that are capable of shaping space are in evidence here, but not to the extent that we have grown to expect of her. Stella adds a colorfully flamboyant note to her oeuvre that will no doubt be incorporated in more substantial future works.

RoseLee Goldberg