Performance and the Art of Conversation   


It seems as of late real conversation has become a dying art.  The back and forth of dialog has been reduced to slogans and silences, and white noise for the eye. Text messages are no more than information blips bereft of expressive tonality, nuance, or gesture.  The ear no longer listens and a generation appears to have lost the ability to talk to each other.

Thus it is a joy to come upon a work of art that is all about conversation. Such is the case for Vortex Temporum (2015), a remarkable work by Flemish choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, and the most recent in her four part Rosas series begun in 1982.  A complex discourse between seven dancers and six musicians from the Brussels-based contemporary music ensemble Ictus, takes place in four distinct acts or movements that address Keersmaeker’s question of “how can you visualize polyphony by dancing it?”  The composition in question is Gerard Grisley’s 1996 polyphonic masterpiece Vortex Temporum.

Here is a work stripped down to the fundamentals of speech as sound and image replete with all the shadings of tone and timbre, colors and patterns, ideas and emotions. No extra frills, no flashy technology, or extravagant sets.  Instead Keersmaeker has structured a pure syntactical interface between the physical bodies of the dancers and the sounds produced by each of the instruments in the hands of individual musicians.

In Part One the musicians and their instruments – violin, viola, and cello, flute and clarinet, and a piano, engage each other on a bare stage. Short bursts and ripples of laughter from the winds, while the strings stretch long extended chords into sentences.  The strings reason, debate, argue, converse. The winds emote and chatter expressively. The piano adds rhythmic punctuation. A dramatic monologue counters a lively dialogue. At the end of this section the musicians leave the stage.

In Part Two the dancers clad in black under bare white lights quite literally replace the instruments with their bodies.  The sounds vibrate through them as gesture and movement in a visual conversation that mirrors the aural one. The musicians return for Part Three that now plays out as a series of duets between individual dancer and his or her assigned musician. The dialogues build into groupings, some of which overlap into the anticipated polyphony.  This culminates in brilliantly animated sonic kinetics full of ping-ponging witticisms between the piano, the piano player and the piano dancer. It is a perfectly synced high-energy virtuoso performance


Part Four takes on the full work as the title suggests.  Dancers and musicians merge into an orchestra, each dancer synchronized to his or her instruments. The piano turns continually on its axis as it orbits the space. Accompanied by the musicians circling in their own paths, the dancers spin, skip, leap, run in swirling groups, collectively turning the stage into a spacetime vortex of polyphonic rhythms, and kinetic visual “voices” mirroring layers of symphonic sound. It winds down to single notes, small slow movements, a breath, a string, a tone, as lights dim.

Keersmaeker has observed that, “Time can be thought of as both linear and cyclical…a balancing act between memory and anticipation… “  In this work she places the audience between those two polarities. We become participants in the process of listening and “speaking”, simultaneously going back and forth between past and future. This work operates on the quantum level of transmission and reception, as well as the biological sensory mechanisms of communication. It also invokes a cosmic vision about the ways in which we are all connected.  It stands in sharp contrast to the disruption of real conversation in our overly mediated environment.

In contrast to Keersmaeker’s tightly structured, precisely choreographed work is the unique performance work of the late Rachel Rosenthal’s Tohubohu! Extreme Theater Ensemble based on pure improvisation. If Keersmaeker’s compositions are scored orchestral works, Tohubohu is a free jazz group.

Every performance is unscripted, unrehearsed, and unrepeatable. The performers are so finely attuned to each other that their wordless visual and kinetic communication seems almost telepathic. The twelve member Ensemble operates on intuitive levels honed through years of rigorous practice.  They are watching, listening, responding to each other in the present moment in a state of complete awareness. The images that emerge in the process are filled with surprises and open-ended “narrative” possibilities”. Drawn from the poetic imagination to real life events and experiences, they span a wide range of emotions from humor to pathos and everything in-between.  Even the props and costumes are chosen in the moment as the performance is in process. Equally engaged in the creative conversation are the improvised instantaneous sound and lighting choices made by Kate Noonan.

The performance space is small and intimate, holding only around forty people on the same level as, and close-up with, the performers.  Thus as audience we become attentive participants, fully present and engaged in the process of perception and communication. Afterwards the audience has an opportunity to converse with the performers about what they have perceived and experienced.

I attended the most recent performance on November 21st and much to my surprise found myself confronted with images I could not recall having ever seen before (that is quite a feat in a world oversaturated with millions of media images) and yet seemed at the same time utterly contemporary and eerily timeless in what they evoked on the level of human experience. One of the sketches began with knocking on walls or doors as if seeking shelter, an opening, or a barrier, entrance or exit.  It followed with the use of empty door frames moved about and manipulated, suggesting freedom or imprisonment, escape or protection, flight or safety. And then a performer with an umbrella functioning in a similar way, expanded the metaphor. All the possibilities unfolded through the interactions between the performers.

Tohubohu! performs once a month and can be attended over and over. The conversation is on-going and ever-changing. For more information and the 2016 schedule see http://www.rachelrosenthal.org


Vortex Temporum,  Sat. November 14, 2015, Royce Hall, Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA
Choreography by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker
Created with and danced by 
Boštjan Antončič, Carlos Garbin, Marie Goudot, Cynthia Loemij, Julien Monty, Michael Pomero, Igor Shyshko

 Vortex Temporum, Gérard Grisey (1996)
Music director
 Georges-Elie Octors

 Piano -
Jean-Luc Plouvier, 
- Chryssi Dimitriou,
- Dirk Descheemaeker, 
Violin -
Igor Semenoff, 
Viola –Jeroen Robbrecht
, Cello
 Geert De Bièvre 

Tohubohu! Extreme Theater  Ensemble
Ensemble: Jarred Cairns, Doug Hammett, Outi Harma, O-Lan Jones, Nehara Kalev, Nicole Marie, Josue Martinez, Craig Ng, Dan Poirier, Stephanie Shaw, Joan Spitler
Light & Sound Design / Company Director – Kate Noonan
2847 S. Robertson Blvd.,  LA, CA 90034-2439
Between Hargis & Cattaraugus St.  

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