at the Museum of Contemporary Art, October 19-20

By Terry Brennan and Daniel Halkin

Why do we say that clocks go ticktock? Listen- ing carefully, one hears a clock go “tick, tick, tick,” each beat having the same intensity and sound: our minds convert a regular, repeating sound into a sound with variation, creating a more complex pattern. This mental activity is part of what minimalist art explores.

Composer Steve Reich repeatedly establishes one rhythm in his 1971 piece Drumming, then introduces another that eventually overtakes the first. But when the second rhythm is introduced the ear perceives it strangely, as a melody that winds its way through the first rhythm like smoke wafting through wire mesh–the meshed window of a modern prison–and the smoke seems a hope for freedom, ethereal and touching. But all these thoughts and feelings exist only in the listener’s mind. The minimalist composer is thinking about patterns, not metaphors.

Reich’s technique in this composition is direct, even blunt: he invariably combines his rhythms in the same way. But Drumming’s very rawness makes it an excellent score for a minimalist dance: its patterns make illustrating the musical phrases easy, and the dance in turn provides a visual manifestation of the brain-twisting music.

Consider the opening of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s dance Drumming. A woman performs a long phrase along a strip of stage. Then she performs the same phrase in unison with a man. But it’s a curious duet because they face in different directions. The path of the movement bends, and the man and woman seem to circle each other; each seems unaware of the other, yet they’re clearly linked. The first woman leaves and two other women take her place and dance the same phrase with the man, but this time the path becomes a full circle as the three form a rotating pinwheel. The phrase brings the man close to one woman, then the other; the two women never approach each other. The movement is balanced between the formal structure of the repeating phrase and a barely sketched story of flirtation. Formalism is the meat of the dance; De Keersmaeker allows stories to come out of the shifting patterns, but as soon as the pattern ends, the story disappears.

After this spare opening the movement patterns become more dense. Frequently all ten dancers in De Keersmaeker’s Brussels-based company, Rosas, are crossing the stage at once in groups of twos and threes, threading through the melee at center stage. The dancers look casual, lounging at the side of the stage while others perform, but are clearly skilled. Some apparently enjoy themselves, watching one another and the audience, while others look inward. Seldom forming straight lines, they seem to prefer ragged lines and clusters. Their egalitarian community offers no lead dancers, just a series of individuals dressed differently, combining in various ways like atoms forming molecules. De Keersmaeker’s movement has a characteristic dynamic–a slow stretch or contraction followed by a quick rush that changes the dancer’s shape or place in space. Wisely, she uses the music as a starting point, not a template or straitjacket.

Drumming differs from classical modern dance in that De Keersmaeker allows her dancers to take unique approaches to the movement. As a result the piece feels like a collaboration rather than a tightly disciplined expression of the choreographer. Drumming doesn’t communicate a single vision but a shifting series of patterns that encourages viewers to project their own ideas onto its relatively blank surface. Translated into the moral sphere, it suggests relativism–each person sees the world in his or her own way and must act on that vision alone.