In the midst of life: Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Mitten wir im Leben sind


Sadler’s Wells, London
April 24, 2019

Charlotte Kasner

In the midst of life we are also in death; two apparent polar opposites, although in reality humans do begin to die in some ways as soon as they are born. Two opposites were certainly displayed on stage by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker  and Rosas in Mitten wir im Leben sind.

Jean-Guihen Queyas’ rendition of the complete Bach cello suites was simply sublime. It did not matter where he was asked to sit: back to audience, sideways on, facing out front, the sound was superb. A bare stage enabled his instrument to sing; delicacy followed by robustness, wistfulness by sorrow which turned to whimsy and joy. The entire compass of life was there in Queyas’ masterful hands. No stranger to the works, he embodied the familiar pieces utterly as the sound resonated throughout the auditorium from the lone, spot-lit instrument.

But, at two hours without an interval, Mitten wir im Leben sind quickly becomes a test of endurance. Extended sections are danced in silence, or rather without music, as it simply served to highlight the rasping breath of the dancers, noise of landings and fits of coughing from the audience that these moments always seem to provoke.

Mitten wir im Leben sindPhoto Anne Van Aerschot
Mitten wir im Leben sind
Photo Anne Van Aerschot

Bach was born forty years after polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and de Keersmaeker suggests his mathematical inspiration by noisily taping lines on the floor during times when music is not played. This not only extends the inaction but they are invisible to anyone sitting in the stalls. Why they are there anyway is a good question since the dancers do not seem to pay any attention to them.

Despite including various dance forms of the time, de Keersmaeker notes that Bach’s cello suites were not intended to be danced. Indeed, they often depart radically from the social dance forms that were common in the baroque period.

In Mitten wir im Leben sind, the dance increasingly resembles a tiny, dry asteroid circulating a mighty musical planet. While the cello suites surge, ripple and resonate in the centre of everything, the dance is a series of endless, repetitive gestures that never connect. A series of sautés en arrière, feet parallel pop up again and again, regardless of the rhythm or mood that the music conveys. Arms are held parallel to the floor for what seems like an age or hoisted aloft. Not waving but drowning? There is much rolling on the floor, stretching of limbs and dancers curled in a foetal ball. Queyas sometimes turns to watch, makes brief eye contact but any kind of connection doesn’t travel, in spite of dancers sometimes getting perilously close to the precious cello.

What is disappointing is that there is so much from the Enlightenment that could have been used as a reference point for de Keersmaeker’s work. A dramaturg is credited but the music, which belongs firmly to Bach’s formative years, deserves to be placed more definitively in a context communicated clearly to the audience.

Queyas leaves the stage several times, not unreasonably given the lack of interval, and at one point can be heard playing offstage. After one break, he took an age to tune on stage while the dancers stretched, but only before the final suite. Why?

An D’Huys’ costumes are dreary and unflattering. De Keersmaeker in a short, asymmetrical dresses which looks as if the seamstress had forgotten to sew some of the sections in, topped off at times by a dull brown wrap over. The men mostly wear baggy black Bermuda shorts and navy t-shirts that look as if they had shrunk in the wash as they rode up to expose midriffs. At the end they all came on in garish, Dayglo trainers which seemed somehow irreverent.

All human life was there but only in the music.