Brussels is betwixt and in between. The city is both capital of Belgium and headquarters of the European Community. Its culture has been shaped by a variety of Germanic and Romantic influences, including Italian, French, and Spanish. Brussels' official languages are Flemish and French. Such an environment of duality is a fitting home for choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
Born in Wemmel in 1960, De Keersmaeker studied at MUDRA, the school associated with Maurice Bejart's Ballet of the 20th Century. But she left Belgium in 1981 to train at the Tisch School of the Arts in New York. "I wanted to study dance in a more intense way," she explains, "in a city where dance is a part of the life. I wanted to see work by Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Robert Wilson, and The Wooster Group."
Soon after her return to Belgium, she established her company, Rosas, which, in 1992, was invited by Th_ê¢tre de la Monnaie to become the resident company of Brussels' Royal Opera De Munt/La Monnaie.
One of the first pieces De Keersmaeker created after this appointment was Mozart/Concert Arias, on view this month as part of Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival. The creation of this work was deeply connected to her position at Thé_atre de la Monnaie, and the new resources made available to her. "I intensified working with the music and working with live music," she says. "I don't think this was a major shift for me because I had made pieces with music and text, always mixing these different means used to communicate. Working at Thé_atre de la Monnaie, the possibilities became higher, but so did the challenges. One such challenge was making pieces for larger audiences but keeping experimentation alive."
This dual focus distinguishes De Keersmaeker's creations. New York audiences may be familiar with her recent appearances in the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Last year Rosas performed her piece called Rain at BAM and the year before, Drumming. Both of these works were virtuosic and abstract, determined by their scores by Steve Reich.
Mozart/Concert Arias looks very different: created for three sopranos and ten dancers in lavish period costumes designed by Rudi Sabounghi, the piece unfolds on a wood floor designed by Herman Sorgeloos that suggests motifs in Vienna's Schonbrunn Palace. Instead of the subdued, almost pedestrian clothing worn in Drumming and Rain, dancers in Mozart/Concert Arias wear Sabounghi's exquisitely embroidered outfits and heeled shoes. Although there is no narrative, Mozart's music and De Keersmaeker's movement evoke strong emotion. As the choreographer says, "The feeling of love is quite present."
The through line in De Keersmaeker's creations is her intense connection between movement and music. When Mozart wrote these arias he was between the ages of 21 and 33; De Keersmaeker begins the piece with Mozart's "Ch'io mi scordi de te," wherein the composer made a musical declaration of love for soprano Nancy Storace. The other arias were chosen based on their relation to this initial starting point. The basic idea behind the creation," says the choreographer, "was choosing arias around the theme of love that can exist despite the distance between two people, even if the ultimate distance is death."
Jane Moss, Vice President of Programming at Lincoln Center, says that Mozart/Concert Arias "is a perfect presentation for the Mostly Mozart Festival for the direction that we want to go. We are already incorporating choreographer Mark Morris into the festival, and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's works are what I would characterize as an even more avant-garde take on Mozart's repertoire. I am also a great fan of hers and have liked her work a great deal over the years. I have been very impressed‹and this is where she is comparable to Mark Morris‹by her extraordinary sensitivity to music."
Although the two choreographers worked for extended periods of time at the Thé_atre de la Monnaie, their creations are radically different. Morris's L'Allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato had its premiere at Thé_atre de la Monnaie in 1988 and was presented by the Mostly Mozart festival several years ago. "It was the first foray into dance within Mostly Mozart and it was such a fantastic hit," says Jon Nakagawa, Lincoln Center's Producer of Contemporary Programming. "It fit so perfectly within the festival that we have been finding more ways to bring other art forms in." Nakagawa adds that Morris's works tend to be more "gestural" than De Keersmaeker's. "Her movement comes from a deeper place. The movement grows out of something. It's visceral."
When Lincoln Center asked De Keersmaeker to remount Mozart/Concert Arias, it was an unusual request for a choreographer who is driven to explore new directions. "Even though I have always preferred paths that take the company forward I am privileged to accept this request," says De Keersmaeker. "The first show created during the Rosas residence at Thé_atre de la Monnaie confronted the dancers for the first time with a great orchestra and three sopranos, right onstage beside them. Since then the orchestra has changed, the singers too, and they will change again, each time giving fresh impetus to the dance with their own energy and their own different personalities."
The Mostly Mozart performances mark the first time Rosas will perform in New York with a full orchestra. Mozart/Concert Arias also provides a significant addition to the festival's exploration of Mozart in contemporary interpretations. "Last year we presented Winterreise by Trisha Brown, and this year will present a Jonathan Miller production of Cosí fan tutte," says Nakagawa. "I think it's important for our audiences to see classical music in a different context, and to teach people to listen to classical music in a different way. De Keersmaeker and her dancers listen to the music as they dance so it becomes a part of the experience."
Moss adds, "When I talk about where I want to take the Mostly Mozart Festival, what I mean by that is we are expanding the stage/theatrical components. Initially we did concerts, then we added Mark Morris. Last year we added opera. I think that what we want to do is continually push the envelope in terms of not only staged operas, but things like staged concert arias. As opposed to existing, theatrical works by Mozart, we'd rather treat a variety of Mozart repertoire in interesting and creative theatrical ways. Mozart/Concert Arias fit perfectly in this plan."
Asked what makes De Keersmaeker's works distinct, Nakagawa answers, "I think she's a very passionate and intelligent choreographer, and that's such a unique combination. Usually you see very intellectual and cerebral choreography. Or it has a very passionate sort of Pina Bausch-like quality. I think Anne Teresa brings those two things together and Mozart/Concert Arias is no exception."
This duality is more reason why Brussels makes such an apt home for this creative artist. As she says, "Belgium is my homeland, and I think I belong to an artistic community there. It's such an important part of my identity."
Kate Mattingly teaches dance history in the United States and Europe and freelances for a variety of publications.