Kelly Apter: Imitation can be the sincerest form of plagiarism

Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker. Picture: Hugo Glendinning.
Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker. Picture: Hugo Glendinning.
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They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but back in 2011 when Beyoncé released her Countdown video, Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker was feeling far from flattered.

More than a few of De Keersmaeker’s moves had been borrowed for the pop singer’s dance routines, leading to a debate over when a homage becomes plagiarism.

Ten years earlier, however, De Keersmaeker genuinely had been flattered when American minimalist composer Steve Reich wrote her a letter. In it he praised De Keersmaeker for deciding to create a dance piece to his 1976 work Music For 18 Musicians, stating that he couldn’t imagine “anyone on earth doing a better job of it”. This, says De Keersmaeker, was indeed “a compliment”.

The resulting piece, Rain, premiered in 2001 to great acclaim, both from audiences and critics. And now, 16 years later, the work has been re-staged by De Keersmaeker’s company, Rosas, and is heading for the Edinburgh International Festival.

It’s a glorious return for both De Keersmaeker and Reich, last seen at the Festival in 2008 when the superb Drumming wowed dance and music fans alike. And while there are similarities between the two works – the compelling repetition for starters – it has something altogether different to offer.

“The Music For 18 Musicians is a continuous stream and flow of uninterrupted music,” says De Keersmaeker, “and the dancing in Rain is just like the music. It has something rigorous and repetitive about it, but it’s quite different from Drumming or other earlier Reich pieces, because it’s more about celebration, more sensuous and voluptuous.”

Performed by ten dancers, Rain is a challenging work lasting 70 minutes, during which the action never stops and the dancers rarely get a chance to draw breath. Some of the original cast who worked closely alongside De Keersmaeker when she was choreographing it, have helped this new crop of dancers learn the piece because, inevitably, their stamp is all over it.

“Re-staging a piece like this, which was done with a very tight community of dancers with whom I’d worked for a long time, is always a very intensive process,” says De Keersmaeker. “And it raises questions about the dance and choreography, such as when does the choreographic writing stand for itself, and how much of it is influenced by the performers and their individuality?

“I’m not the kind of choreographer that shows or demonstrates – I’d rather ask questions, do propositions and then eventually I’ll create the basic framework of movement material. Then the dancers start to do all the structural operations on that – working on mirroring, retrograde, left/right – all kinds of purely formal transformations that we work out together.”

An entire book on the structure of Drumming and Rain has been produced by Rosas, filled with intricate information on how the pieces were shaped, and how they have been influenced by Reich’s music. Much of it reads like a mathematical text book, which is hardly surprising given that both De Keersmaeker and Reich are fond of patterns and layering. Hearing De Keersmaeker talk about the creative process, it’s clear just how much time and effort went into Rain – both before and during rehearsals.

“For me, choreography is organised movement in time and space, and generally the music is the time framework,” she explains. “I also often work with geometrical underlying patterns that organise the space.

“When you build very complicated or intricate, complex, contrapuntal choreographic writing, it’s not the kind of thing you put into a computer and then you hand over a sheet to the dancers. It’s a very slow process where people sit around the table, analyse the score, analyse the possible structure and then spend a lot of hours in the studio finding how to embody that.”

The hypnotic quality of Reich’s music is matched by De Keersmaeker’s movement on several occasions, especially during sections where the dancers walk back and forth across the stage, or run in circles. But it’s the break-out moments within that, when people step out of the line and dance alone or in duets, that the possibility of an emotional connection arises. How does De Keersmaeker work with the dancers to ensure that, in amongst all the patterns and procedures, the human spirit shines through?

“I don’t organise the emotional aspect strategically, because I think that the body is always an emotional body, that somehow carries the traces of all possible human experiences,” she says. “And besides that, it’s also a social body – especially in a piece like Rain, which is very much a group piece where individual dancers have to find their own trajectory.

“In comparison to a composer, a choreographer works with the dancers in the studio – and it’s a very long process, but it’s also a very social process and it’s inevitable that there is some kind of emotional layer that emerges and is present in the work. Less readable maybe, but always present.”

De Keersmaeker worked with the same design team on Rain as she did for Drumming, with award-winning designer Jan Versweyveld responsible for the set. Asked by De Keersmaeker to create a semi-circle effect on stage, Versweyveld came up with the idea of using a curtain of fine rope to carve up the space.

The result brings an aesthetic quality to the piece (the curtain is vaguely reminiscent of rain falling) and allows the dancers a brief respite when they pass through it. For the most part, though, they’re energetically on the go.

“I think for dancers it’s quite rare that you have one hour when you’re continuously on stage and in such a continuous physically intense state,” says De Keersmaeker. “So it is exhausting but it’s very much about people individually carrying each other, and carrying each other as a group.”

Ever since it premiered in 2001, Rain has been cited as one of De Keersmaeker’s most popular works. Initially danced by her own company, it was later re-staged by Paris Opera Ballet in 2011, when a team of documentary makers followed the entire process 
from auditions through rehearsals to opening night, resulting in a film, also called Rain.

As an insight into how a choreographer and company goes about re-staging a dance, it definitely serves its purpose. But for anyone interested in the progression of dance, and how a work stands the test of time when viewed in different contexts, cultures and eras, nothing beats sitting in a theatre and seeing for yourself.

“Nowadays a lot of the repertory of contemporary dance is available for new audiences through films and books, but not necessarily live on stage,” says De Keersmaeker. “So to embody a language which was written 16 years ago, and then to give it over to a new generation is a great privilege, but also the only way to keep it alive, as live performance remains the quintessence of 
dance and choreography.”

Rain, Playhouse, Edinburgh, 25- 27 August, www.eif.co.uk