Universal Movement

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s ageless claim for the value of peace

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s stalwartly sighs with her torso, crouching in demi-plié in her silent introductory solo. Facing the audience at the edge of the stage, her épaulement has a purpose. Addressing us with mind and body, her outstretched hand says, “You, I’m talking to you.” She utters “Once” in a throaty voice, prefacing Joan Baez’s “Once I had a sweetheart…” The singer and the dancer are copasetic partners in De Keersmaeker’s 2002 full-evening solo “Once,” which had its premiere in New York November 8 to 12 at the Joyce Theater.

Sound designed by Alexandre Fostier features a readymade recording of the 1963 album “Joan Baez in Concert: Part 2” toyed with in strategic places. The volume drops and we fear there’s a problem. “We shall overcome some day,” De Keersmaeker sings with a tortured look. She runs and gallops through, “Portland Town.” The lights darken at “We sent them off to war.” She’s prayerful, reverent, and introspective playing air guitar. “La leeeee la la laaaa,” sings Baez.

Lighting and set is by Jan Joris Lamers. The stage is dim and sparsely furnished. There is a blanket into which De Keersmaeker cries with the painful lyrics of the folk ballads. A turntable on a stand could be like the one in the living room she grew up in. She turns the album over and tells us, “Long Black Veil” is her favorite, but the song screeches to a stop at, “The judge said if you were somewhere else then you would not have to die.”

The songs are varied; some lyrical and romantic. With the Brazilian “Manha de Carnaval,” De Keersmaeker does a Spanish-style dance, switching her hips and whirling in a dress designed by Anke Loh. All the lyrics are lucid in projected English supertitles, underscoring their importance and her desire to speak to us. “Little bird carries messages of love.” Her gestures feel uncannily soothing—cradling, seeking a lost lover. She has said, “I’m not thinking of one thing, I’m thinking of a thousand things.” She founds “Once’s” structure in Baez’s concert, and it’s neither linear nor logical.

The intensity builds and so does De Keersmaeker’s vulnerability. She offers her bare chest triumphant and toned. Scenes from “Birth of a Nation” are projected on the cyclorama and her body as she dances in front of it. Clouds or gun smoke pass over the murky Civil War battle in the film, enveloping her, but the large billowing American flag is undeniable. The music again halts at “They killed the Indians.” For spectators—primed, sitting still and stiffened at attention for an hour—the raging scene is wrenching.

Nothing’s explicit, but the Belgian choreographer uses a pastiche of American history and culture to make a universal and timely claim for the value of peace. She questions God’s whereabouts, and his appropriation. “You never ask questions when God is on your side,” Bob Dylan pipes in from Baez’s concert stage. The music comes to a halt again at “Glory, glory, hallelujah.” De Keersmaeker drops in a dead fall from a headstand. Bush’s bravado, the blind cruelty of extremists, these are images that only emerge in the spectator’s mind in “Once,” a protest piece.

De Keersmaeker dances the music’s lyrics, she postures, slumped or startled; then, there are mimes, barks and whistles before she skips and gallops. She creates imagery with turns, plies, arabesques, and attitudes. Her hands and arms dispense emotive energy. The great Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya explained that in classical ballet, the arms and hands tell the story while the legs and feet do the steps.

Keersmaeker has said she doesn’t want her dancing to interfere with the music in “Once.” But her low-keyed theater is balanced with pure dance and an obsession with formalism that sends a message of belief in the capability of the human body. She exemplifies what could happen should one turn on the music and dance, responding to the swell of words as well.

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