The following review is courtesy of Emily Johnson, director of catalyst dances
If I could ask a question of Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker regarding “ Once” it would be:
Why did you choose to fast forward through those particular two paragraphs of the Bob Dylan song “ With God on our Side” (we got to see the words flash on the wall as they flew by without sound – I only caught the word “ Russians”).
If I could ask a question of Joan Baez regarding “ In Concert Part 2” it would be:
Why did you tell your audience they could sing along to ”The Battle Hymn of the Republic?”
The first question is because Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker made a million decisions regarding the creation and performance of “ Once” and out of all those decisions, I only question one. It could be that those paragraphs become too specific – Germans and World War II (hate), Russians and the Cold War (fear). This theory doesn’t hold though because if it did, it would bother me that the text “ The Indians died”…(oh, this country was young) is dramatically highlighted, not only on the wall in silence, but through her body crumpled on the floor (as if Indians are less specific that Germans or Russians). Rather, the exact moment the record scratched, her legs fell and she stayed still and crumpled as “ The Indians fell” read on the wall behind her was genius and simple and clear and as specific to hate and fear as it was maddening and sad. Perhaps the omission of a few paragraphs is simply because the song is a long one.
The second question I would ask because last night many in the audience at “ Once” began to softly sing “ The Battle Hymn of the Republic” both with Joan Baez’s voice as support and without. My first impulse was to get a little choked up. We were well into the performance, my emotions were already being prodded by Ms. De Keersmaeker, people around me had already cried, and low and behold – people began to sing! I was struck then with the horrid irony of a group of Americans singing a battle hymn, a war song. Yes, it is gently sung, yes it was born out of a union army camp during the civil war…but it has a hell of a lot of marching in it, a hell of a lot of righteousness, hell, it was sung at Ronald Reagan’s funeral. My horror gave way to awe when the genius of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker blended – from 1963 to the present moment on stage. (Joan Baez told the audience they could sing along to the battle hymn, which they did. She countered with the Dylan song “ With God on our Side” (look up the lyrics and read them), revealing what the audience fell into and De Keersmaeker used that moment in a concert to create an alive, poignant and universal showcase of what it means to fall into step (sing a battle hymn) without consequence (“ accept it all bravely”), from a safe place, and with more than a little pride “ For you don’t count the dead When God’s on your side.“ )
God, I’m quoting Dylan songs – I’ll move on.
Besides, perhaps the above is too “ political.” Folk songs are a way to protest wars and injustice and so are dances but “ Once” made me think that there might be a few people we should all pay more attention to. People who don’t count their work as “ political” outright, but who view and live in the world in a way that their depictions and their art lives outside the boundaries of politics. A higher level of understanding? Maybe. Maybe those of us who have to view work as either political or unworthy are lagging behind. Whether I lag behind or not, I wish “ Once” were playing to more American cities. I’d love to get all Americans willingly singing “ The Battle Hymn…” then listening to “ God on Our Side” as they see on a flickering screen anyone they could ever imagine having a war with as the silhouette of a person, larger than those fighting on the screen breathes and moves a little. The silhouette (Ms. De Keersmaeker’s) became a visual depiction of what it’s like when you wish so hard that a) your heart wasn’t breaking, b) there weren’t any wars, c) you could bring someone back to life or d) any other impossibly huge wish that takes over your body and ultimately you can’t do anything about. The moral fiber of war was literally projected onto De Keersmaeker’s skin as the moral fibers of herself were projected back onto war.
I love being captivated by simplicity. Her entrance (walking in a door to the side of the stage and taking off her shoes) was as simple as her exit (putting on her shoes and shirt and walking away). The first minutes of the dance are stark and in a nicely redundant way, put us all in the same room. Obviously we are all in the same room, but in silence she has herself and us – the audience – lit equally. If you’re lit, you’re as important as the person on stage or next to you, with as much responsibility and blame as anyone else. Her movements are as bare as the slight shuffling and coughs of us. The moments she mouths the words of a song as she dances or touches her face – are very nonchalant, unassuming and earnest at the same time. I couldn’t help but notice others sitting around me doing almost the same kinds of things.
Perhaps it is her stage presence, perhaps it is her commitment to her work but moments into “ Once” I completely trusted it. I trusted that the performance would contain a little more than I could grasp and I decided I could trust the choices De Keersmaeker would make. I say “ would make” because at times it did seem she was choosing how to say/move/look at us next. Like when you have to stop your sentence in the midst of it to choose the next word – because you want to choose a word that holds meaning in its sound, in its pronunciation – a very important word. A friend of mine after the show said she knows she’s seeing a good piece when her creativity is tapped in the midst of performance – when her mind is allowed to wander a bit. This place of wandering – of being in more than one place at a time is a fertile place and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a performer do that. It was as if we were seeing De Keersmaeker perform and choose how her performance would go next – listen to her record as a child at home and hear it on stage at the McGuire – protest a war and be non-political – be 15 and 45-years-old at the same time.
I also love when a dancer is so intensely a dancer you can see it in her hands. This is why dancers train so hard – so that dancing/technique (whatever that technique may be) isn’t what shows. What shows instead is the reason for dancing. De Keersmaeker says, “ I am obsessed by pure and taut lines, magnetized by the rigorous equilibrium of classical dance, but while I can formally execute this severity, beauty and certainty, it doesn’t mesh with me at an intimate level. So I put up resistance and use the resulting tension – between pride and fall, between charging forward and retreating, between certitude and doubt, between reaching out and withdrawing, between the straightness of a line and the meandering curve – to compose “ a clear exposé of the odyssey of introspection…”
Yes, she is classically trained and I appreciated it so much. It let me see her reasons for creating “ Once.” The dancing brought me to consider my own thoughts. Her dancing taps into whatever current allows her to communicate. It was the perfect example of an artist using her potential to perform to perform rather than performing her potential.
I also appreciated her tiny foibles, her mimicking of words, the literalness of a lyric like “ go away” as she puts her hand up and turns her head. Such literalness would usually make me squirm with embarrassment, but here it was like when you see a kid copy you – the kid is trying to learn something new, to figure something out, to try something on – and quickly it (the act/word the kid copied) teaches you (the adult) what you’re like and sometimes you like it, sometimes you squirm. I had a composition teacher in college who told us at the time not to use songs with words. Songs with words are too powerful I assumed. This Baez album is powerful but “ Once” is absolutely not a recreation of word-meaning into movement. I appreciated how De Keersmaeker “ non-politically” but very clearly pointed out that dance is as powerful a language as any when she literally acted out “ Hush little baby” and it simply demonstrated that a lullaby is a lullaby whether it is in words or in movement.
Have I used the word genius enough yet? I am a little overwhelmed that all of the choices Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker made make sense. I am astounded by the integrity of “ Once.” How can lying down on the floor and half completing a backbend make sense with turns and a leap, classical lines, a fierce focus, small gestures, the singing of “ We Shall Overcome,” the screaming into a blanket, undoing and redoing a bun? Somehow it does and she does what Joan Baez did with the battle hymn – points out that we all have our patterns, our skills, and our mistakes to contend with each moment and that the choices we make really do affect someone sitting next to you and someone across the globe. It’s so much bigger than politics.
She put her face into the open part of a very bright and I assume very hot standing light. She played us a record from her childhood. She danced for over an hour. How much more does she have to give us before we understand that if we all took time to turn our thoughts into communicable meaning considering the feeling in our guts we wouldn’t find ourselves singing loudly or softly of marching at all – our guts probably wouldn’t allow it – and we would all be on to much better (and hopefully more peaceful) actions and thoughts to consider at all.