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Théâtre National Wallonie-Bruxelles

EXIT ABOVE after the tempest

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker

© Johan Jacobs

In 2023 you created the piece EXIT ABOVE, after Shakespeare. Why the reference to Shakespeare today?

Clearly, what runs through the dance and the piece itself is the tempest. Perhaps we are now in the eye of the storm. Perhaps we are the tempest. Perhaps the spiral of history is closing in on itself. As the potential for disaster unfolds, the possibility of rising and staying suspended by the spiral itself silently emerges. It beckons. We thought of Shakespeare’s The Tempest because it captures the growing complexity of our relationship to nature, to European colonial history, to the unstable body and to power today.

However, the starting point of EXIT ABOVE is not William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, even though this runs through it. It’s ABBA, it’s pop music. We wanted to question its roots, as well as those of the Blues. The starting point of the choreographic phrase was lodged –again!– in the observation of walking: “My walking is my dancing” and Walkin’ Blues, the Blues standard written by Son House in 1930 and popularised by Robert Johnson. There is an idea here of anticipating the mourning of something not yet lost but no longer quite here, by celebrating it. There’s nothing morbid about this: on the contrary, such a celebration coincides with the healing power of the individual and the collective.

In EXIT ABOVE, harmony is created from the scattered language of Shakespeare, from the Blues and the beats, from the voice of singer-songwriter Meskerem Mees accompanied by Carlos Garbin, and from the multilayered tracks of musician and composer Jean-Marie Aerts. The choreographic writing has a less definitive side without an end point.

The word harmony comes from the Greek armózô, meaning ‘to join’. It’s true that EXIT ABOVE is the result of an agreement between different elements and their adaptation to a whole. As I speak, we are still questioning the narrative. For example, Jean Marie Aerts and Meskerem Mees are two complementary figures. Jean-Marie Aerts’s music is danceable, it creates movement. Meskerem Mees’s music is a kind of poetic stroll. Through their counterpoints they create a unique and unpredictable singularity: they interfere and intertwine with one another, colouring, illuminating or obscuring the piece as they meet the music of country-blues guitarist Carlos Garbin. In EXIT ABOVE, there is no message; there are only questions. The choreographic writing here is at once extremely precise and lively, individual and collective.

In EXIT ABOVE, more than pure, the dance is alive: it is neither ‘performing’, nor effective, nor efficient. It negotiates. It is rich in its interactions, it constantly changes axis, rhythms. Is this a way of implicitly affirming that ‘the performance’ is no longer the cardinal value of dance or of the world? That it is necessary to adapt in the face of the instability that characterises the world to come?

I believe very deeply that there is a force that one acquires in the vicinity of the stage –a unique place where one still shares time and space. More than an ability, it’s a knowledge that feeds us, that allows us to trace an existence against all odds. And the world in which we live, with its hazardous character, only confirms this to me. I look around myself: we live in a society where the unbridled consumption of social networks appears to be the only destiny, fatal. The stage is a vast conversation between people who do not know each other, transcending time and space. In this sense, it’s the major place of encounter with the other.

The starting point of dance is walking; this refers to both the everyday and the metaphysical, to verticality and horizontality: the horizontal displacement of our verticality, the backbone, the base, our antenna between heaven and earth. I like diagonals. They materialise the fatal moment, just before the tipping over into the void. If you fall like that, you die. But if you fall horizontally, you fly away. [She mimes the gestures with her hands].

Here, dance is combined with pleasure to constitute a driving force likely to liberate the imagination and to mobilise, making the dancers’ bodies real subjects.

Yes, absolutely! The notion of ‘expenditure’, as described by Georges Bataille, is very present in EXIT ABOVE. It’s this kind of giving and/or spending of energy –already present in the movements of Rosas danst Rosas (1983). This metaphor makes me think of the Dionysian energy of the Rave party, the energy of revolt, vast and limitless, just before falling off the cliff.

I was also struck by the way the dancers move from the individual to the collective in the piece. There are ellipses of sorts. You think they’re alone and suddenly you find them within the group, thanks to a new awareness of the body. The metamorphosis is constant.

I think I’m still too involved in the material to respond to this. In any case, we can say that thanks to –and in spite of– the group, the individual is there.

— Interview by Sylvia Botella for Kunstenfestivaldesarts and Théâtre National Wallonie Bruxelles. This conversation was based on a rehearsal of EXIT ABOVE that took place three weeks before the premiere.

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