Jazz Personified

by Martha Sherman

What a splendid way to open a splendid new arts venue – to bring John Coltrane’s music to life with four superb dancers. The Hearst Dance Theater threw its doors open with “A Love Supreme.” This new version of the 2005 collaboration by Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Spanish dancemaker Salva Sanchis, was inspired and danced first to silence, then to the eponymous music of saxophonist John Coltrane: a lush quartet with piano, bass, and drums. The dance was also for four performers, constructed with a combination of strict rhythm, discipline, form. The score was echoed by beautiful improvisational loops of the arms, legs, and the whole body.

The Hearst is one of four performance spaces in the newly opened Lewis Arts complex at Princeton University, and the opening weekend of the building offered over 100 events, and several sold out. Although the space was designed for the performing arts students of the university, the expectation for the four handsome theaters in the center is that fully mounted professional productions will be at home as well.

Hearst is a gracious space, black box in design with very high ceilings and textured wall coverings, and flexible seating to move with the staging. “A Love Supreme” couldn’t have been simpler in conceit. There was no set, though the black marley floor was subtly patterned in a mixed geometry of triangles, squares, and diagonals: a jazz-inflected design. There were minimal costumes by Anne-Catherine Kunz, and clear dramatic lighting, originally by Jan Versweyveld and recast by De Keersmaeker and Luc Schaltin. Everything about this performance, including the lush dance movement, was only in service of the music – the love supreme – though the first third of the hour-long work was danced in silence. The music was still in those steps.

In the long, silent opening scene, four men entered to dance, first in comfortable, idiosyncratic movement swooping and turning in parallel, individuals who happened to be on stage together. Then they shifted, twisting and melding into a foursome of lifts, pulls, and balances. In one example, each of the dancers clutched the wrist of one or two others, and the four created a morphing body sculpture of angled leans, their weight born by their connection, with no threat from gravity.

Thomas Vantuycom in “A Love Supreme.” Photo © Anne Van Aerschot.

Even in the silence, the movement looked musical and jazzy – shifts of tempo, sharp rests, the dancers taking cues from each other as they shared the spotlight. Three of the men lifted their tallest mate, Thomas Vantuycom, above their shoulders. They shared the burden lightly, then the three soon melted off to stand quietly against the side walls, as Vantuycom stood for a long, still pause before an arm rose, his chin dropped, and he began a vigorous extended solo that gobbled the space in huge movements. His arms, unfolding wings when they opened and closed, turned him in whirls and contortions, with long angles and footwork that included slides as well as steps, and toes that flexed both back and under his feet. The movement was very exact – very much De Keersmaeker’s – but so fluid and flexible, that it also seemed like a rewriting of her precise movement vocabulary and stage shapes.

About twenty minutes in, Coltrane’s music burst through the speakers: a shock of sound. The other three dancers moved back into the space one at a time, to join Vantuycom, sliding, like musicians, to fill out the quartet. The trio sometimes moved in parallel, in and out of patterns including a diagonal line of movement behind Vantuycom – they were the instrumental back-up to Coltrane’s sax line, mirrored in the clean dance line that framed Vantuycom’s solo. As he slid on the floor and bounded back up, two other dancers sunk to the ground and Vantuycom seemed to physically converse with them, just as the sax talked to the bass and the drums of Coltrane’s quartet.

It took a few minutes of the music before it became clear that each cast member was an instrument, with movement lines that represented the sound of those musicians. Elvin Jones’ drums were danced by José Paulo dos Santos, whose kick pounded the drums and whose arms slashed the cymbals, the movement loosening as the percussion skittered. The bass, played by Jimmy Garrison, was danced by Jason Respilieux, who shifted from the underlying roll of the rhythm to specific emphasis on individual notes, dancing with exaggerated gestures. The closest pairing with Vantuycom’s sax dance was with Bilal El Had, who danced McCoy Tyner’s piano line, supporting Vantuycom the way Tyner supported Coltrane: entirely distinct as he made the central performer stronger with his partnership.

Each dancer had a solo turn, a unique set of dance moves and shapes, flowing along with their instrumental counterparts. When the quartet reunited, the movements from the early silent quartet had a deeper resonance, rich and delicious. Now, when the trio lifted Vantuycom, their connected strength was palpable. The dancers entered in a euphoric state, sliding to and past each other. The more fluid the music became, the more the dancers melded, never losing their specificity or voice, but using each line to make a more robust whole. Occasionally, flying past each other, one would flash a smile, a physical response to this freedom and connection. Each dancer was lifted by his partner trio in shifting shapes and centers. As the piano line bore up the sax, El Had bore Vantuycom over his deeply bent back. The lights darkened as the trio slid off the stage, leaving Coltrane and Vantuycom – and his looming shadow—before melting away.

Copyright ©2017 by Martha Sherman

“A Love Supreme” – Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Salva Sanchis with Rosas
Hearst Theater, Lewis Center for the Arts, Princeton University
October 8, 2017

Cover: “A Love Supreme.” Photo courtesy of Rosas.

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