Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

Keersmaeker’s Rosas danst Rosas. Reviewed by Judith Stanton

I write fiction and love dance whether dressage for horses or ballet, belly dancing, break dancing, or modern dance. As a creative artist, it’s been my goal to recover my old connection to the arts with poetry, film, exhibitions at some of our super local museums.

I’m lucky. The American Dance Festival, a summer institute for dancers in Durham, NC, imports the top troupes in Modern Dance from America and around the world. In years past I’ve had season tickets and felt like the luckiest dance fan in the universe. I’ve been mesmerized by performances of dances by Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, and have been so fortunate to see Twyla Twarp, Laura Dean, Martha Clarke, and Eiko & Koma dance in dances they too choreographed. Of course Pilobolus Dance Theater always wows.

Last weekend, the Dance Festival honored Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, 53, from Belgium, with their twentieth annual Samuel H. Scripps award, sort of the McArthur award for dancers, including $50,000, obviously well deserved. It was previously given to all the choreographers named above. I met a friend to see a reprise of de Keersmaeker’s break- out Rosas danst Rosas, a two-hour dance in four movements. After all the appropriate speeches and her acceptance, including the audience spontaneous singing "Happy Brithday" when it turned out to BE her birthday, she turned on her heel and marched off stage, saying "Let's dance." It was only halfway into the second movement that I was sure the 53-year-old choreographer was the lead dancer, vigorous and fit and commanding. She had choreographed it in the early 80s at the astonishing age of only 23 shortly after moving to New York City to study dance. It’s now legendary, and she is internationally acclaimed.
I was thrilled to find excerpts on Youtube from a seriously well-done film of Rosas danst Rosas, all worth watching. I pass them on to you. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
The first movement lasts eight minutes. It starts in silence and the only sounds you hear are from the women when they fall on the floor, slap it, turn, breathe. For all my privileged experience, I’ve never seen women dance like this, powerful and vulnerable, utterly without reference to men, sexual but not seen through the male eye. When De Keersmaeker created this dance in the early eighties, the feminist movement was so richly articulating ideas of women’s privacy and power.
Her empowering vision embraces female beauty as it combines emotions and physical strength, grace, and endurance. The camerawork in the Youtube clips exquisitely captures what I saw on stage. I love the first movement because of the relationship the dancers have to the ground/ earth, the primal slaps and grunts and even efforts to rise up. Take a look.

The second movement, on chairs, starts in silence. Then music comes in but you can still hear the swish of the dancers’ skirts, the slap of their bare feet on the stage floor, and their breathing, sometimes a grunt of effort. The placement of the chairs made me think of a commuter train and so I imagined the women moving out into the world, together and alone in their striving to go forward. This video lasts ten minutes, but on stage, that movement must have run 25-30 minutes. Amazingly, I lost all sense of time. That hadn’t happened to me since I first saw the original Seven Samurai in the seventies and was shocked to learn that what seemed to take place in, oh, an hour and a half had taken two and a half hours in all. De Keersmaeker’s dance in four movements lasted two hours and five minutes. Genius.

In the third video, below, the third movement is also much shortened. In the film, the setting is extraordinary and camera work amazing. On stage there were only four women in each of the four movements, but I love the way De Keersmaeker doubled the number of women dancers then tripled them so that long shots finally show almost a dozen women dancers on the three floors of the building. This must be a school, don’t you think?

The third movement speaks to me of female action and accomplishment, of being in the world, of moving through corridors, passages, of opening doors. Unlike the first two YouTube clips, Anne Teresa can be seen dancing in this one, first appearing at about 48 seconds. Her straight hair is cut in a blunt bob just below her ears so you can’t miss her. She dances with incredible fire and precision.
I’m SOOO frustrated I never found a clip from the fourth movement. Please let us know if you do. Having watched the whole stage performance with my heart in my throat, I do love all three videos, but it’s hard to pick up on the women’s vibrant silent communications—glances, whispers, nods—that I saw on stage. On stage, these gestures and inaudible speech confirm their bonds. For me the dance was about women's power and our isolation from each other at the same time we are able to find strength in what bonds us to each other. But it's also a Rorschach test, and I’m not sure the film shows it. I've read a couple of interpretations of de Keersmaeker’s vision that have nothing to do with what I saw that night!
And my friend Charlotte Hussey, a wonderful poet from Canada who studies the ancient art of belly dancer wrote me that she “really liked the third one—particularly the way it was filmed in an old school or warehouse. The dancers and their moves are hauntingly contemporary and speak to the angst we all feel in the modern world—particularly that of being a woman in a body that expresses her uncertainties and even shame. “
In the two hours of unremitting energy and action, I also came away with the strongest sense of being a woman in a body of the utmost power. It was an astonishing display of female physical health and vigor being brought to bear on uncertainty and shame. I've now seen clips from other of de Keersmaeker's dances, some by men, totally engaging, but I stand by loving Rosas danst Rosas for its feminocentric focus, for empowering women in our inevitable isolation but also for the special strengths we bring to community. It's turning into an empowering pilgrimage for me to reach out to other art forms to energize my creative spirit.

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2 Responses »

  1. Hi Judith, Janet, & et. al.,

    It was amazing for me to revisit Modern Dance after some time. I had forgotten how powerful and revealing it can be of contemporary isolation, fear, bravery, etc. The clips above were choreographed in the early 80s, when women were coming into their own, but still uncertain. I really get the feeling of their reaching out for move of lfe and then contracting back apprehensively in certain of their dance moves. Very telling. Making me ask, have things really changed for women??

    Also one has to appreciate, not only the raw power of the Rosas Danst Rosas choreography, but that it would be difficult to execute as the music itself is quite repetitive and doesn't give a lot of cues as to where movement patterns should change, etc. It's quite a tour de force!!

    I have mostly done folkloric dance, not Modern, and I chuckle a bit too because I remember a Haitian dance teacher I once had chiding us for not smiling, projecting ourselves, and strutting across the dance floor. She said most of the Canadians she taught were all lost somewhere down inside themselves, were ashamed to be alive!! I don't know what she would think of Keersmaeker's work, but it does seem Keersmaeker would under stand my Haitian teacher's comment because she is taking all our depressive angst and turning it into vital expression.

    I have learned over the years to strut my stuff and take please in doing so via dance. It has given me much self-confidence and a sense of just feeling good. But of course, there are always those rebellious rock tunes as well as slow, sad lyrics that evoke other expressions, other ways to move and be.

    Thanks again for posting your review Judith, Cheers, Charlotte

  2. Charlotte, beautiful, delicate, and intricate comment. --Janet Riehl

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