Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker’s ‘Rosas’ dance company is presenting, at Sadler’s Wells in London, the ‘Steve Reich Evening’ of works inspired and accompanied by the music of the eponymous composer. The choreography that once seemed both an elegant critique and, paradoxically, an enhancement of cold machinism, now informs pieces that feel like curios from a bygone era in which dances with the machine were viewed as correctives to hyper-rationality.
The programme opens with an eloquent yet eventually imploding image: two microphones, suspended from long cables, swing like pendulums between two speakers, creating feedback noises each time they pass through the speakers’ active field.
As the mics start to swing out of phase so do the feedback noises move from harmony to discord then, as the pendulum swings reduce, the mics move more or less together and the noise reharmonises even as the system winds down.
The piece is Steve Reich’s ‘Pendulum Music’, one of his earliest minimalist works, composed in 1968. The episode last about five minutes and is, at first, beguiling. The simplicity is enjoyable and the swinging microphones seem to have their own agency as they suck notes from the speakers. We are watching machines at play and we are captivated by them. The machines are indifferent to us but they are uncanny.
This period of enchantment lasts about two minutes, at which point it becomes apparent that it might take the pendulums several minutes more to come fully to rest. An avant garde moment supervenes, provoking, in this viewer’s mind, a thought along the lines of “Oh no, we’ve got the idea about our relationship to technology and we are now being punished by an aesthetic of needless protraction.” Mercifully a performer eventually cancels the swings with his hands and we move directly into ‘Marimba Phase’, a Reich piece for two marimbas in which much the same sorts of issue are reprised within a more complicated (and, by comparison, lusher) minimalist frame.
The concerns with technology would not, and could not, have been framed in the composer’s mind back in the early 70s with the same urgency as they are today.
De Keersmaeker, nonetheless, would appear to feel that the music, deployed by her as dance scores, has its eloquence for an early 21st century audience and has produced two new works for the programme.
Certainly the meticulous iterations of her female dancers (less so with the men) command respect and there are playful ruptures in some of the pieces that suggest that well drilled, mathematicised ensemblism is indeed not a commendable prescription for a social programme.
The trouble is, the work is hopelessly out of date. It – or its minimalist equivalents – became obsolete at the point of 9/11 and achieved the status of a museum piece in the course of the last three weeks. It’s a bit much to expect Sadler’s Wells, which probably has a programming lead-time of at least a year, to oblige us with a polished commentary on the collapse (or, to borrow the euphemism of the moment: ‘the unwinding of the excesses’) of Western capitalism as it is actually unfolding in the banks of nearby Upper Street, but it must be said that suddenly the rigour, the chilly economy, the repetition, the cycling and recycling that characterise the work feel like semaphore from the inmates of a bubble in time. As a consequence, the work acquires a nostalgic charm, consoling us with the suggestion that a better world is to be found within the hygienic severities of number, pattern and calculable return.