INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Guardian MARCH 3, 2016 - by Chris Wiegand
AS YOU DANCE IT: BRIAN ENO AND TERESA DE KEERSMAEKER DO SHAKESPEARE
In the show Golden Hours, featuring tracks from Eno's Another Green World and choreography by De Keersmaeker, the playwright's lines are danced rather than spoken. The duo talk about stretching time, the power of pop songs and searching for answers in the studio.
Belgians, says Brian Eno, have got a thing for repetition. As evidence, he offers the listening habits of his Flemish mother. "When I was young, she fell in love with a Roy Orbison song called Blue Bayou... We had one of those record players that could play again and again - the needle would pick up and go back to the beginning. I remember going to school one morning. She played Blue Bayou all through breakfast time. I went to school and I came back in the evening - and Blue Bayou was still playing."
Eno - famous for creating his own loops on albums such as Music For Airports - leans back in his Notting Hill studio and smiles. He is joined in laughter by the woman peering out from the laptop screen in front of us. "It's probably also the origins of your ambient music," deduces the choreographer and dancer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, who is Skyping us from her Brussels office.
If Eno wanted further proof for his theory, then you need look no further than De Keersmaeker, who in the 1980s forged a formidable reputation for contemporary dance in Belgium that continues to this day. De Keersmaeker's signature work is the relentless and hypnotic Rosas Danst Rosas (1983), performed to a bruising industrial score mimicking pistons, which features a quartet of uniformly dressed women going through a set of gestures that alternately suggest ennui and ecstasy. The piece provokes similarly split emotions among spectators. When it was revived at Sadler's Wells in 2009, with De Keersmaeker herself in the ensemble, the dancers' flinching in their seats on stage was mirrored by plenty of audience members, restlessly shifting about in their rows. But the potency of the piece is undeniable and the show proves that no matter how many times you watch a dancer perform the same move, each will always look and feel different.
When she was creating Rosas Danst Rosas, De Keersmaeker developed her own musical addiction, not to the Big O like Eno's mum, but to Roxy Music and the solo albums Eno made after he left the group. She was hooked in particular on his haunting Golden Hours, which features Eno on vocals as well as what the credits call "choppy organs" and "uncertain piano". The track captures the warmth, melancholy and gentle menace of the album on which it appears: Another Green World (1975). "I love this song so much," says De Keersmaeker. "I have a really childish but very honest relationship with it." She gestures excitedly when explaining how it makes her feel: "Play it again, Sam! Play it once more... Encore une fois! Another time. Again and again and again until the record is kaputski!"
From the start, De Keersmaeker choreographed pieces to a huge variety of musical styles. Like Eno, she was influenced early on in her career by the minimalist master Steve Reich. Her work Fase (1982) comprises a solo and three duets danced to four of his repetitive compositions. Reich features in her later works too, as does music by Bartók, Bach, Gérard Grisey, Arnold Schoenberg and John Coltrane. Her moves have also inspired musicians - most famously Beyoncé, whose video for the song Countdown featured moves so similar to Rosas Danst Rosas that they were once deemed by De Keersmaeker to be an act of "pure plagiarism".
De Keersmaeker has a particular love for pop, which she describes as our most direct and daily relationship with music. "It is pulse-related, so generally good dance music," she says, drawing a comparison with contemporary classical music. "Have you ever tried to dance to Anton Webern?" she asks. I have not.
In 2009, she created The Song, a piece for ten dancers which used the Beatles' White Album as a framework (she describes it as an "iceberg which is under the water") but didn't feature much music. She had thought about using Eno's Golden Hours for The Song but put the track "in the fridge" instead. It was brought out again when she had the idea to use music from Another Green World in a loose adaptation of As You Like It, where the lines of the play would be danced rather than spoken.
The dancers might hum or sing snatches of Eno's songs as they perform, but they do not speak a single line of Shakespeare - the meaning comes primarily from their movements, although certain speeches from the play are projected against a screen in the production. Nevertheless, the dancers have learned the words of the speeches they are dancing. Reviewing the show in Brussels, Roslyn Sulcas of the New York Times wrote: "It's clear, watching the dancers, that they know the language of the play intimately, and that their movements are generated by its rhythms and meaning."
Shakespeare's comedy, the Eno of the '70s and Roxy Music share certain themes that are immediately obvious - not least an interest in gender-bending and cross-dressing. There's also the "green world" of Eno's album and As You Like It's forest of Arden, whose wild freedom is contrasted with the French court in the play. And both the play and the album have an interest in time: As You Like It contains Jacques' famous speech about the "seven ages of man", and Golden Hours opens with the lines, "The passage of time / Is flicking dimly up on the screen / I can't see the lines / I used to think I could read between."
De Keersmaeker has always concentrated on notions of "space, the organisation of space, geometrical patterns that underline the choreography", but she wanted to resume her early interest as a choreographer in different perceptions of time, particularly the stretching and compression of time. (In Eno's Golden Hours, he asks "How can moments go so slow?" yet then sings: "Several times / I've seen the evening slide away.") Once Eno and De Keersmaeker had decided to collaborate, Eno returned to the album and made "several variations of it - like backwards and upside-down and stretched so that it was very long... There are a lot of those. Some of those are quite good pieces actually. I was listening to a couple of them the other day. They might have a life some day." But not, it seems, in De Keersmaeker's show, which predominantly uses the original tracks - Golden Hours is played several times in a row at the start and acoustic versions of songs are played on the guitar by one of the dancers, Carlos Garbin.
"Work at a different speed" was the instruction on one of the famous Oblique Strategies cards that Eno used to aid the artistic process and help him avoid creative blocks when he was recording Golden Hours. (Others read: "Try faking it" and "Is it finished?") He recalls entering the studio with nothing prepared in advance. "I had already made two albums by that time. On the second one a lot of the songs started as very, very basic sketches and I developed them really in the studio, in relation to the people I was working with, the technologies that were there, the possibilities that were around... Those things had a spontaneity and a life to them that was much more exciting to me than the pre-written pieces. So I decided on that third album, that's what I was going to do. The first week was so disastrous I nearly gave up... I remember very clearly standing and working on one of those pieces and weeping as I did." Eno says that he would "never dare" to release Golden Hours now. "Listen to the rhythm: it's so sloppy! But a lot of the character of the piece is that you can hear it's somebody making it up. It doesn't sound like a bunch of machines. It sounds like someone trying hard."
Would De Keersmaeker ever use the Oblique Strategies method when choreographing? "Not for this. I was considering that. But I'm stubborn with my own things... I've a 'formalist strategy'!" She says she goes slowly day-by-day, but always has a plan. She is used to responding to music scores and finding "choreographic answers" to composers such as Bach, but the challenge with Golden Hours was embodying Shakespeare's words rather than music. "It was really a long searching process. I have not been crying in the studio but pulling my hair." She yanks away to prove her point.
The European tour of Golden Hours stops off at Sadler's Wells in London later this month. It was at Sadler's Wells that, in 1992, Eno gave his memorably entitled, three-part performance lecture Perfume, Defence and David Bowie's Wedding. It was, he says, a "terrifying" experience. The last part concerned Bowie and Iman's nuptials in Florence that year, reflecting on Hello! magazine's exclusive coverage of the ceremony. The middle bit touched on defence spending. The opening section of the speech concerned one of Eno's longtime interests. He reminds De Keersmaeker of her visit to a mysterious-sounding laboratory he has at his studio. "The most interesting thing about perfume is that we don't really have anywhere near a language to speak about it," he says, drawing a contrast with our understanding of colour through paint blocks and Pantones. This instantly intrigues De Keersmaeker, an expert in finding moves to express what words can't. "That's true," she says excitedly, in what feels like a light-bulb moment. And the idea hangs in the air with - who knows? - the whiff of a future collaboration.
Golden Hours (As You Like It) is at Sadler's Wells, London, March 8 and 9.