Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s and Jérôme Bel’s 3Abschied is the latest addition to a long and historically well-established series of choreographic works set to music by Gustav Mahler. There are still those, however, who cringe at the idea of dancing to the notes of this revered composer — as Keersmaeker points out in her initial monologue where she recounts her encounter with the conductor supremo Daniel Barenboim.

Barenboim’s words linger menacingly through most of the performance. When Keersmaeker first dances to the ‘Abschied’, from Das Lied von der Erde (in a Schoenberg transcription), played live on stage by the superb Ictus ensemble, one can hear the words ‘I told you so’ ringing eerily in the dark. Her movements, which imitate those of Ictus’s conductor Georges-Elie Octors, are not that engaging. Even her much-acclaimed mix of pedestrianism and introvert, extreme physicality seems thwarted by the majestic strength of the music and the drama of Sara Fulgoni’s breathtaking singing.

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Luckily, viewers are not the only ones to feel let down by this charismatic dance-maker, for it is at this point that Jérôme Bel materialises in the stalls and, in line with his known performing code, tells the audience that he finds the dancing ‘unconvincing’. His critique acts as a catalyst, for all the puzzling pieces of the performance — Keersmaeker playing an extract from a famous recording with Kathleen Ferrier, the musicians occupying the whole of the performing space, Keersmaeker’s initial narrative — suddenly come together. This is not merely a dance work, but a work about making dance and, in particular, about the issues that making a dance to Mahler’s music might raise.

Bel’s arrival is thus pivotal, as from that moment on viewers partake in the process of researching choreographic ideas. The narrative thus shifts from Mahler to Haydn, and ideas drawn from the latter’s ‘farewell’ symphony are tested with different degrees of success and laughter. In the end, Keersmaeker remains alone on stage with pianist Jean-Luc Fafchamps, and gives her own vocal rendition of the ‘Abschied’, accompanying it with a dance that is far more in line with her compositional traits. The effect is powerfully anti-climactic. The dance-maker strips herself of the ‘celebrated choreographer’ tag and shares a very intimate moment, namely one when dance-makers create a piece by and for themselves, humming or singing off-key the inspiring music. The fact that the music in question resonates with a theme such as mortality adds greatly to the occasion, crowning what, in my view, has been one of the best performances about dance I have seen in years.  

Intimacy, though exposed in a far more theatrical way, is also at the core of Javier de Frutos’s new creation for Rambert, Elysian Fields. Based on Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire — lines of which are delivered by the performers — the new dance encapsulates the whole drama in a truly succinct choreographic narrative. The action takes place on a dance platform, on which dance and physical violence alternate in an almost ritualistic way in a crescendo of acted and danced hysteria. It is a powerful piece that highlights De Frutos’s unique sense of theatre-making. I only wish it had been placed in a more exciting context, instead of sharing the bill with a technically lukewarm Rainforest by Cunningham and Mark Baldwin’s new but seriously flawed and seriously disappointing Seven for a secret, never to be told.  

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated