Steve Reich Evening

Steve Reich, György Ligeti (composers); Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker (choreography)

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh International Festival, 19 August 20085 stars

Steve ReichThere are two loudspeakers, upturned, front-stage, one in front of the other. Suspended above each is a microphone, hung from far above.

At the edge of the stage, a chair faces the arrangement from either side. Two male dancers walk on and face each other with the microphones between them. One withdraws, holding the microphones (the other retreating symmetrically) and then releasing them.

The dancers sit. The microphones, as they swing across the speakers, generate a short feedback howl, one pitched a fourth above the other. Since the pendulum phases are subtly different, they shift in relation to each other. Gradually the arc reduces, so that the duration of the howl becomes slightly longer. The dancers sit immobile like temple statuary. Their function, it becomes apparent, is to police the audience's inner child, which is bursting with the urge to fidget, giggle and chatter. As the arc of the pendulum swing reduces further, it emerges that there is an inflection at the edge of the sound, which gradually develops into a fully-fledged pitch in its own right—one of them a semitone, the other a full tone. Later, the dancers rise; the one who released the pendulums now captures them, and the performance ends. That's Pendulum Music.

Now there are two marimbas facing each other centre stage. The two players execute the signature of New York minimalism: the dazzling, high-speed coordination of intense individual virtuosity. The arc described by the mallets echoes the arc of the pendulums, lit in such a way as to create the illusion of a translucent wedge. Engineered with a precision that recalls Bach's solo sonatas, alliterative melodic lines generate implied harmony, exploiting interweaving and instrumental artefacts to generate a brittle and precarious counterpoint to the relentless rhythmic imperative. That's Marimba Phase.

Fase, danced to Reich's Piano Phase, is De Keersmaeker's signature work (see it on YouTube). The symmetry, precision and rigour already witnessed now yields a classical concept, symplokē, meaning weaving, entanglement, complexification. Rather than stark oppositions, subtle dichotomies. Two female dancers, dressed with simple elegance in pastel off-white shades, enact a flowing sequence of sharp circular turns that translates the motion of the pendulum into a human relationship. The two are lit so that both project two shadows, one overlapping so as to create a single third. The geometry of the movement is drilled so that these remain fused throughout the first section, and yet woven into the grace and precision is a subliminal trope of girlish play. As the work proceeds, the short socks and swirling skirts serve to counterpose an equally subliminal sexiness, underscored by the dawning grasp of the sheer tremendous athleticism of the non-stop, twenty-minute performance, executed with near-perfect silence on the dancers' part.

Steve ReichIt was disappointing that Eight Lines was not played live, though even the Festival Theatre's capacious stage would have been crowded had there been fourteen musicians—not to mention page turners and conductor—for the dancers to negotiate. Eight female dancers, all now barefoot, less formally though still elegantly costumed, translate swirl into a prevailing circular, clockwise trajectory. There seems to be a B-Girl thing happening, a break-dancing trope that affords limited scope for improvisational soloing, again subliminally playing 'urban' against 'olive grove' or whatever idyll comes to mind. (It may just be that without live music, the performance looks a bit like a night at the disco.) The eight lines are paired instruments in Reich's score, but De Keersmaeker resists the obvious correlation with paired-up symmetry. Instead, paired trajectories emerge periodically, always with the other six dancers moving independently.

Four Organs there were, two facing two at the back of the stage with the maraca player perched on a stool between the two ranks like a cantor, holding the steady, relentless pulse. Five male dancers, dressed to coordinate with the previous number, reprise some of the tropes from Eight Lines. As one might expect, subliminal sensuousness is displaced by subliminal rambunctiousness. No fights break out, but, quite suddenly, late on in the piece, the dancers begin to converge and interweave with breathtaking speed and density.
Then a strange interlude. Ligeti's Poème Symphonique is scored for a hundred metronomes, arrayed at the front of the stage. Five female dancers set them off and then withdraw, leaving the stage blank. This is where the policing function of the immobile dancers in Pendulum Music becomes apparent. With no human participation visible, the audience breaks out a feast of fidgeting, muttering and giggling. The sound of the metronomes is drowned, in a strange echo of John Cage's 4'33", so that the audience—which has experienced no interval and no break between numbers—briefly becomes the performance.

Drumming is perhaps Reich's signature work. It is as much dance theatre as music in itself, close to an hour of non-stop concentration. Part 1 by itself lasts about twenty minutes—the whole ensemble of dancers, now assembled, begin work before the first drummer arrives. Symplokē works towards its maximum intensity, the lines of pattern draw ever tighter; with the genders interwined, the subliminal erotic charge becomes more overt. The athleticism, which has been a notable feature throughout, begins to pose a puzzle: how do the dancers retain their apparently cool demeanour (mussed hair apart)? The thought dawns that part of their costume must be industrial-strength anti-perspirant; perhaps there should be a designated sweater, lest we should believe that the whole effect had been achieved entirely without effort—and so it transpired! One male and one female dancer exhibit the natural consequence of expended energy.

At the end, the performers received a thunderous ovation. Not all the audience stood to applaud, but a substantial minority did. Surprisingly enough, the ensemble still had the energy to perform an encore—five percussionists playing claves at the front-right of the stage (can't tell you the name of the work) while dancers weave among them, then the design broadens to the whole stage with a light-hearted reprise of the evening's performance, concluding with the Fase motif. The upstage curtain lifts, exposing the bare back; dancers and percussionists withdraw one by one, and another thunderous surge of richly-deserved applause follows them.

By Peter Cudmore

Preview of the 2008 Edinburgh International Festival:

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Previous reviews of the Edinburgh International Festival :

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (2008)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Ades (2007)
San Francisco Symphony/Tilson Thomas (2007)
Optical Identity (T'ang Quartet) (2007)
A Celebration of Poulenc (2007)