There’s a weird phenomenon that happens in New York where, all of a sudden, we “discover” a European theatre artist that has been doing great work and breaking boundaries abroad. After a high profile success, New Yorkers start to pay attention and catapult said artist onto a radar under which they had previously flown, for whatever reason. Most notably, it happened to Ivo van Hove after his production of A View from the Bridge brought him recognition in the U.S., even though his work was seen steadily at New York Theatre Workshop and the Brooklyn Academy of Music for more than a decade prior. Now, it’s on the brink of happening to Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, who will choreograph van Hove’s revival of West Side Story in 2020, and which will be the first time a production of West Side Story on Broadway has used any choreography other than Jerome Robbins’ original. But De Keersmaeker has been doing exceptional work with her Belgian dance company, Rosas, since 1983. Last year, Rosas brought their Six Brandenburg Concertos to Park Avenue Armory to great acclaim. They returns now with a smaller production, Verklärte Nacht, at the Baryshnikov Arts Center.
Whittling Rosas down to three members, De Keersmaeker crafts a narrative dance that conveys the story of Arnold Schönberg’s musical composition with gut-wrenching physicality. Translated to Transfigured Night, Verklärte Nacht was inspired by a Richard Dehmel poem in which a woman tells her lover that she is pregnant by another man. Originally conceived for the full company, De Keersmaker’s choreography now centers on the story’s central woman in two sections: a brief “prologue” performed in silence – the sexual act that results in conception – and the bulk of the dance – in which the woman and her partner wrestle with the revelation of her pregnancy.
It would be so easy for the story to be told through a sustained pas de deux, but De Keersmaker chooses to spend a lengthy period of time focusing on the individual. After the initial dance, we never see the man who has impregnated her again. Instead, the woman’s actual love stands facing a wall upstage while she tears herself apart. Non-verbally, the dancer Cynthia Loemij and De Keersmaeker are able to convey the turmoil this woman is experiencing, agonizing over how to reveal her infidelity. At the end, once the woman walks away from both relationships, her partner, Boštjan Antončič, has a solo dance in which he echoes the self-flagellation his partner performed earlier, lamenting her loss.
When the admittance is made in the beginning of the second section and Antončič turns to face Loemij, they launch into a co-dependent, physically exhausting battle of soul-baring honesty. In a recurring physical motif, De Keersmaker has Loemij hurtle herself at Antončič and he catches her, but she is wrapped around his neck in a fetal position. This grasping sometimes results in a sexualized position where his face lingers below her hips, but it sometimes ends up with Loemij’s body becoming slack and sliding down his torso and legs to the floor. The different physical responses to these similar movements speak volumes about the relationship between these two people. Later, they engage in a balancing act where both sets of their arms are extended and grasping the other, just until one person removes this ballasting force and unseats the precarious stability of their relationship. There is a stunning beauty in the raw physicality on display, in the sheer expression of truth, of pain and connection, through only the extension of limbs and the pounding of fists on chests.
The music under the choreography is filled with dramatic violins punctuating a driving beat. It’s dramatic, theatrical music, appropriate for the kind of high-stakes conversation happening between the characters. At times, Schönberg’s composition reminded me of Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock scores; the lush ominous strings echo the stirring panic of the subtext. De Keersmaker does not hold the choreography to a rigid rhythmic count that corresponds to the music’s meter; she lets the physical rhythms unfold in response to the music, sometimes behind it, sometimes ahead of it, and the payoff is stronger when they line up as a result.
To say De Keersmaeker is “the next big thing” is to ignore the decades of work she has achieved, but it does feel like she’s on a precipice, about to tip over to the land van Hove has fallen into. Van Hove’s work has, at times, felt diluted since A View from the Bridge – maybe it’s overwork or maybe we’re just onto his tricks. The hope is that the same will not happen to De Keersmaker, and the kind of powerful, affecting choreography she creates will resist the wear and tear of American recognition.