Steve Reich Evening
nytheatre.com review by David Johnston
October 22, 2008
BAM's Next Wave Festival continues its venerable tradition of bringing the great artistic troublemakers of our time to New York. The current political classes would no doubt be horrified at such highbrow antics, defiantly out of the mainstream, and that of course is a big part of its appeal. This one is about as high-toned as it gets—an evening of dances by the Belgian choreographer Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker, set to the music of Steve Reich. This was my first exposure to Reich's music, and a whole evening of it is strong medicine. In much of his music for the evening, phrases are repeated ad infinitum, and tiny variations in time, tempo, and phrasing emerge, almost as if by accident. The music can be interesting, maddening, hypnotic, and boring, and if attention is paid, extremely satisfying. It's easy to see why Keersmaeker is inspired by Reich's music—rigid in form, it breaks apart and comes together, leaving the dancers in a tightly structured space that's paradoxically freeing.
Did I like the music? I don't know if I will run out and buy Reich's five-CD collection. At times I definitely became fidgety and wondered how much longer I could take this. My tin American ear starts longing for a little melody, a hook to grab onto, someone to burst into song. And yet—if you stick to it, Reich's music has it rewards. But like the plays of Samuel Beckett, it has to be approached on its terms. Surrender is necessary to enjoyment.
The evening starts with two male dancers coming onstage. Two pendulums are hung from the flies. They hover over an instrument. The dancers set them in motion. When the pendulums pass by the surface of the instrument, there is an electronic hum. The two dancers sit on opposite ends of the stage, and watch. I braced myself for a long night at BAM.
The next piece, "Marimba Phase," has no dancers, just two musicians of the ensemble, Ictus. Reich introduces a cascading phrase for two marimbas. I wondered how long I could take this endless maddening repetition, and then suddenly found myself sinking under the waves, taking a sensual pleasure in the tiny variations, the note heard here, then there, then lost. Turning off your logical brain becomes a pleasure, and you give in.
In "Piano Phase," the dancers step forward to deliver the goods. Two female dancers execute a similar step-pivot-arm-out step in unison with each other, accompanied by two pianos. Remon Fremont's lighting is cool, almost clinical. Keersmaeker keeps the temperature low, and this turns out to be a great way to serve Reich's music. By keeping the movement dry and arid, Reich's piano variations gain a visceral kick. The dancers' shadows split, they move out of unison, now they're in opposition, and when they execute a turn—a turn that's vicious in its unexpectedness—I was hooked.
Keersmaeker's dancers are spectacular in their execution and precision. They are costumed in simple white shifts for the women, button-down shirts and dark trousers for the men. They look like the hippest Gap ad ever. But they have infectious joy in their own technical proficiency and happily submit to the formidable music. At times, they are mechanistic, and at other times—as in the all-female "Eight Lines"—they are a swirling, leaping, living mass of pure movement, bodies in space. This piece is all curves, hips, buttocks and torsos. There's no story, no Martha Graham-style narrative; just the pleasure of watching bodies in rest and motion.
"Four Organs" is the showpiece for the male dancers. Their movements are all angles where the women are curves. A harsher, more ominous work, this one was not as successful for me. I could have also done without "Poems symphonique pour cent metronomes," by Gyorgy Ligeti. This is a hundred metronomes set onstage that slowly wind down. It's not as interesting as it sounds.
The closer, "Drumming – Part I," is an athletic romp, an explosion of energy set to the imposing percussion of Ictus. Note must be made here of Ictus, the amazing musicians for Keersmaeker and Reich's evening. Their playing is passionate, tightly wound, and technically superb. Reich's music is in good hands with these guys.