ANNE TERESA DE KEERSMAEKER AND JÉRÔME BEL IRRITATE WITH THEIR CO-OPERATION "3ABSCHIED"
By Helmut Ploebst
The climax comes last – as soon as Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker begins to sing Der Abschied (The Farewell) from Gustav Mahler’s Lied von der Erde herself. This moment would be very special even if the artist did not belong to that small circle of choreographers who are able to fill large theatres, too. Places which an educatedly garbed, left and right orientated bourgeoisie shows up at in order to show, and be shown something.
By and large an interesting target group. One which clearly expects fitness on the stage. It wants to see artistic winners and nibble on their triumphs – triumphs the auditorium itself grants or refuses. Mainly it is not interested in the art itself, but in its aspects of heroism or accomplishment, and it visits the theatre or the opera with the same attitude that soccer fans have towards their stadium. The bourgeois clientele expects some added value from culture which should be transferred to it in an equally stimulating and frictionless manner.
But what happens when this transfer begins to sag? When the service taken as a matter of course by the largely well-off audience celebrating itself, is denied? Then its self-control ends, and it fully comes to, or beside itself. For instance, when a dance icon like Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker sings Mahler’s Abschied with a thin and often tilting voice, but with all the dedication of a passionate dilettante.
The bourgeoisie as target group
Now, people gathered in the theatre because they knew that Keersmaeker is one of the undisputed carriers of accomplishment on the big international stages. That she is a highly musical star, a top-class choreographer, still a fascinating dancer who has gained repute and fame because she has over-fulfilled the audience’s sportive expectations for decades. So, Keersmaeker reaches an auditorium of so-called “carriers of accomplishment”, which now becomes the ideal target group for unexpected political messages.
For in “3Abschied”, her co-operation with Jérôme Bel which had its world premiere on February 16, 2010, Keersmaeker reacts to a world in whose design this audience has an active part: that world in which a merciless – and mercilessly hollow – achievement and performance principle reigns – to a degree of absolutism that even its worst failure during the recent world finance crisis would not result in a change of paradigms.
Bel and Keersmaeker only indirectly address this failure. They shun an ostensible performance of their critique and rather take hold of their audience’s experience in the moment of performance. This refusal is concretely political also because it rests on the insight that the conservative weapons of explicitly critical art in the final run have remained blunt. For it was exactly in the heyday of political theatre in the 1970s and 1980s that neo-liberalism soared up from victory to victory, founding its predominance of today.
Was it all in vain then? Up to now, a critical analysis of the social impact of post-68 political art is sorely lacking. On the other hand, there is the interesting fact that it is those people who have opposed today’s critical art for years –especially in contemporary dance, too. One of the most powerful wings of contemporary neo-liberalism is drawn from former leftists. One has become establishment, now wants to impose one’s standards on the next generation, too – and especially prevent an art that threatens the ideological basic parameters of neo-liberalism by grappling with the expectations of an establishment woozy with neo-liberal logic.
The dead singer, the living singer, the non-singer
The piece “3Abschied” comes just in time – on another, global level, too: for the post-industrial societies are saying farewell to their historical identities by folklorising them. The bid their ethical anchors goodbye in favour of bending all ethics to fit utilitarian principles. And they say goodbye to their planet by re-defining lebensraum as economic space.
Perhaps Das Lied von der Erde can be read as a dissociation from such deception. However, Keersmaeker relates in “3Abschied” that in her work for the piece she set out from a passage in Bruce Chatwin’s book Songlines, where he describes how Australian aborigines used song to map the land, and that they are convinced that there will be a time when the sick earth and sick mankind will be restored to the gods.
The decisive thought in this is that it does not have to be a reason for sorrow, Keersmaeker says in her introductory monologue. The choreographer did not only try herself on music from Mahler’s Lied von der Erde out of personal enthusiasm, and it was not formalistic deliberation which moved Bel to transfer strategies from The Last Performance and The Show Must Go On! into his co-operation with Keersmaeker. The collaboration has become a large-format statement on the question whether it is time for a swan song to mankind, or not.
In “3Abschied”, Der Abschied is interpreted by a dead singer, Kathleen Ferrier, a living singer, Sara Fulgoni, and a non-singer, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. And it is the non-singer who takes Mahler’s song where it hurts most in the present. Without in any way doubting the dead and the living singers’ mastership, Keersmaeker and Bel point out the non-sportive added value of art by refraining from a virtuosic finale. Thus the two artists destroy their audience’s expectation of redemption – they do not even hold up the usual mirror with included catharsis service to it, but simply a model of refusing authority. So they send their target group back home in a state of unrest.