John Coltrane's masterpiece in dance by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Salva Sanchis
Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker / Rosas & Salva Sanchis: “A Love Supreme”
Hearst Dance Theater, Lewis Center for the Arts, Princeton University, New Jersey, October 7, 2017
Merli V. Guerra
In early October, Princeton University hosted A Festival of the Arts, celebrating the grand opening of the university’s impressive new Lewis Arts complex. Presented by the Department of Music and the Lewis Center for the Arts, the festival boasted over 100 events in music, art, and dance, including daily sold-out performances of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Salva Sanchis’s “A Love Supreme.”
The clean, minimalist architecture and deep gray hues of the complex’s new Hearst Dance Theater naturally complements “A Love Supreme,” whose sparse set, pedestrian costuming, and intricate choreography are heightened by the theater’s intimate formation.
Sanchis and De Keersmaeker based the work on John Coltrane’s famous jazz album of the same name, and Coltrane’s music frequently fills the space—driving each dancer along its unruly, winding rhythms. Fascinated by the album’s duality of maintaining structural simplicity while simultaneously allowing for improvisational freedom, the two choreographers began a collaboration in 2005 to express these concepts through movement. They welcomed the challenge of creating a piece that constantly flows from composition to improvisation, while remaining seamlessly unified.
For this particular performance, Sanchis and De Keersmaeker rewrote their 2005 work, staging it instead on four young, male dancers, whose energy proved an impressive match for Coltrane’s musical speed and complexity.
“A Love Supreme” begins in silence with a single downcast white light. We watch as the quartet enters gradually from an upstage left door, and we listen to the sounds of breath as the group shuffles through moments of entanglement to counterbalanced suspension. The men move with effortless fluidity, broken only occasionally by the sudden pronouncement of a sharply extended arm or leg.
With time, the group separates, each dancer performing his own quick-tempo phrase work seemingly unrelated to the rest. Still in silence, the four build speed in this chaotic square of solos before coming to an abrupt, impressively synced stop—pausing for a moment, unified.
In time, each dancer removes himself from the stage, and it is at this point that we realize the sparsity of the space as a whole. With no curtains or wings, our four characters are exposed for the entirety of the work. And while those not on the floor can be found standing with professional stillness along the wall, there maintains a connectivity between those offstage and on. We are allowed to witness the removal of an outer jacket and the wiping of a sweaty brow, while the focus between the four performers is always one of quiet comradery.
From here, the work becomes more pensive for both audience and performer. A soloist stands in the center of the stage with pedestrian stance, minute after minute. In time, he changes his facing, and after another pause, changes his facing once more. Throughout this section of the work, we watch this man peacefully self-reflect. Aside from the brief raising of an arm, or the deliberate placing of a foot to commence walking, the dancer essentially paces with inward thought, while gradually expanding the perimeter of the space. Even once his motions build, they remain calm and pulsating. He is a pendulum, ever-pulled off center—a quiet tug of war between gravity and verticality. Though subtle in movement, this section is surprisingly mesmerizing to behold, and is reminiscent of watching a composer deep in thought.
The ensuing sections to follow are jarringly dissimilar. Suddenly we are treated to Coltrane’s jazz for the first time since the work’s start, and all four dancers feed into a unified phrase as if stepping into the music itself. With each embodying one of the four instruments present (tenor saxophone, vocals, piano, and bass), the performance takes on a delightfully haphazard energy coupled with powerful buoyancy. Every musical riff brings an exhilarating counter of three against one. The first solo impresses with speed and agility; the second takes the forefront with quick foot changes, side kicks, and squiggly body rolls; the third comes leaping and bounding across the space with freedom and full-bodied joy; and the fourth plays with the buttery reverb of the bass, with lazy leans and juicy suspensions. Indeed, the choreography is so seamlessly connected in rhythm and intension to the music that one unfamiliar with the album would not know whether to view it as four dancers performing to Coltrane, or if perhaps this music had been created to accompany the dance.
As the music builds and all return to the stage in full force, we suddenly recognize the movement: It is the same choreography that opened the entire work, now facing the opposite direction to give us a new perspective, and set to music rather than silence. We are invited to reevaluate our connections to this movement now, as compared to the start of the show. What once came across as slow and methodical, now reads as triumphant exhaustion.
The white light reappears and our weary characters glisten with sweat, luxuriating in each final suspension and connection. And so, too, do we the viewers luxuriate in these final moments as the music dissipates from both our ears and eyes. One by one, the men leave the light, and despite the choreography’s moments of chaos, we are ultimately left with a feeling of satisfactory completion.
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