Livestream from radialsystem, Berlin
March 6, 2021
Often regarded as the first truly minimalist musical composition, Terry Riley’s 1964 In C is a landmark work. It consists of 53 short melodic phrases that have to be played in sequence, although each musician in the ensemble, which can be of any size and include any instruments, has the freedom to determine how many times he or she will repeat each pattern before moving on to the next. They can also skip sequences and pause. The result is a work where each performance is different in sound and time.
For her choreographic take on In C, Sasha Waltz, until recently co-artistic director of the Staatsballett Berlin, and her dancers developed 53 movement phrases to be performed within a similarly variable structure to Bang on a Can’s 2001 recording of Riley’s music. As with the music, the movement sequences are danced consecutively but with each performer free to decide how many times each is danced, when to miss one out, when to stop for a short while. The result is an experimental piece that’s effectively a structured improvisation. But don’t for a second let that put you off.
It opens with the ensemble of ten dancers silhouetted against an orange backdrop. Almost imperceptibly at first, they slowly come to life. A shoulder rolls, there’s a shrug, a pace, but more than anything, a sense of awakening, perhaps of the arrival of spring, although I preferred to see the work as a journey through a sunny day. As the scrim shifts to a blue-green it’s like dawn giving way to morning. One of the movement phrases has the dancers stand, arms outstretched, as if bathing in the sun’s rays.
As movement phrases come and go, the high-energy music drives the physically exhausting work on. All the time, Waltz and her ensemble show us a dialogue between music and dance. What makes In C extra fascinating is that what we also have here is a conversation with space and time, the looping and overlaying movement, especially when laid over the repeating and overlapping sound, disrupting the latter in particular.
The dance has a remarkable freedom and airiness despite the structural constraints. The movement is loaded with gestures but there are also steps, turns, hops and jumps that skim across the floor. Comings together conspire to be both unexpected and organically natural.
What is really clever is that while each piece of movement material is simple, when put together it produces a dance that is rather complex. The whole really is much greater than the sum of its parts.
Brightly lit by Olaf Danilsen, with the dancers in Jasmin Lepore’s simple vests and trousers or shorts of singularly red, yellow, pink, green, white or teal against equally vivid backdrops, it is a cornucopia of colour in every sense.
The performer’s concentration is amazing. Although the dancers often appear lost in the movement as they surf the music, responding to others is all part of the ‘game’. And just now and again, masks slip as a look here or a smile there brings a moment of recognition.
It’s an exhausting watch too, and there does come a point where the focus starts to wane and you wonder if In C has said all that it’s going to. For me, that came about 35 minutes into the 50-minute piece. But it doesn’t last and moments pull you back.
It would not work without Riley’s fabulous music. Bang on a Can’s recording evokes all sorts of images, most notably towards the end, when I’ll swear I heard a traditional peal of English church bells, perhaps not surprising when you consider that change ringing is essentially a series of mathematical sequences. It’s quite noticeable that the closing sequence in silence (the recording having finished before the dancers, who then slowly come to their own conclusion one by one) feels a little drawn out.
In C is also a dance for today. In an interview with Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, Waltz explained, “Precisely because it is about the interplay between freedom and responsibility, it is a perfect piece for the Corona period. As a collective, we are dependent on one another. How far does our freedom go? How far can we venture forward without endangering the group or the ensemble?” All very valid questions and, equally, all with no easy answers.
In the same feature, she also takes aim at some aspects of how the pandemic has been dealt with. Citing studies that indicate the risk of infection is lower in theatres than in supermarkets, “It can no longer go on, that the theatres are closed. We cannot stay like this!” she says.
The concepts behind In C, its modular nature, make it utterly adaptable. Watching, I couldn’t help thinking that the possibilities for improvisation workshops both for professional and non-professional dancers are almost endless.
Further versions of In C are planned, with Waltz hoping to perform the piece in front of an audience soon, and with live music.
For a more detailed look at Terry Riley’s In C, we recommend reading Terry Riley’s “In C”: A Journey Through a Musical Possibility Space by Tero Parviainen.