Violin phase – a creation story

This is a story of remembrance. It is the result of retrospection and investigation, starting from the continuing fascination by a performance from several decades ago. The performance itself is still alive also: it could be seen recently at the Concertgebouw, in Bruges.

Violin phase – a creation story

The dance

Congratulations! You’ve got a first-class ticket for this performance. You sink nicely into the soft theatre seat. You are watching creation from the first row. What you see is so fascinating that it pushes you down into your seat, takes you along into that expanding world. The violins sound compelling. Something inside you wants to escape from this dance. Something else is taken in, carried far away by a new perception looking like time has stopped. The filmed version of the performance looks like this:
A crossroads of several paths and a wider road in the Sonian Forest, a black stage put up in the middle of the intersection, sprinkled with white sand. A woman in white, on a section of circle. A few moments later, you will see that a large circle has been drawn in the sand and its centre has been marked. The beeches are summer green in all directions. The woman with short black hair, in an off-white coloured dress over white socks and sturdy shoes. Movement. Dance. Hesitantly at first, almost doubting whether she will even begin this dance. Stationary. A pivot with the arms waving. A rotation with the arms close to the chest. A few steps as if walking. First, she steps around the circle while dancing. There is music, a piece by Steve Reich for four violins. The woman is not dancing to the music, she is dancing with the music, like she’s an extra instrument. She now draws radii in the sand, surrounds segments of the circle with circular swirl marks. The trace where the black soil meets the white sand becomes a spoked wheel, or rather a rose, or a flower of life. Successive paths, new perspectives, deep in the forest. You recognise parts of the movement, see them repeat themselves like letters in a word, words in a sentence, always new words, new sentences with the same simple, repeating movements. The spinning becomes brighter, the dress swings upwards, reveals a white slip. The movement is injected with a dose of femininity, the dancer bringing the arms down from very high along her body. Now and then, you can hear breathing. The dance takes you along a piece of perimeter, radially to the centre and back again. Clockwise and then back again. The camera takes a journey, wanders down the forest path under the gothic arches of the beeches. It then moves in the round, but at a distance, making the forest spin. On and on and on it goes, and then all of a sudden the dance stops. The woman in the centre looks up along the vertical axis, hands clasped to her heart, then bows her head. Silence.
And you, the spectator, wanted it to never end and now, abruptly, there is the end of the dance and the music. Why do all those people start applauding right now? I have yet to find my breath, come back all the way from that other room where there was creative dancing. Just a minute…

I experienced this in the Blauwe Zaal of the Singel in Antwerp in 1997. By then, the performance was already about fifteen years old, but it had been taken into production again a few years earlier. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker herself dances the solo of violin phase as the third piece of four dances to music by Steve Reich that form a whole. The other dances are duos. The dance in the forest is the video version. My fascination is still alive. Even now, the elementary movements with which the dance is constructed seem to be present in my own body as a physical memory. I am not a dancer. Even now, in the sudden silence, there is a profound emotion.

The score

There is a book called A choreographer’s score. It tells the story of the creation of this dance. It tells a creation story. It describes the structure of the dance in words and video images. It sketches the ‘imaginarium’, the creative space, the environment in which the dance came into being, was composed, and was created. It is a reflection of the creative process in which an artist seems to touch our inner being. A book of Genesis.

The music of Steve Reich is inextricably interwoven with the dance. Four violins – or one violin and four tapes. One violin plays a phrase of several notes and repeats it. The second, third and fourth violin do the same. The musical phrases sometimes coincide with each other in unison, but most of the time they run alongside and apart from each other. The words in the one phrase gradually shift in relation to the words in the other phrase, away from one violin to another. In this way, new stacks emerge from phase shift, occasionally a surprising piece of melody. Repetition, shift, in phase, out of phase. A constructed beginning. The end dropping randomly when the four violins suddenly stop sounding. Minimal music. Music that does something to you. Something enters you that deeply touches you.

Reich wrote in 1973:

What is needed is a genuinely new Western high art dance with movements natural to the personality of someone living here and now, organized in a clear (i.e. universal) rhythmic structure and satisfying the basic desire for regular rhythmic movement that has been and will continue to be the underlying basic impetus for all dance.

Anne Teresa took this music with her in her suitcase when, very young still, she flew to New York to continue her dance training there. During the evenings of crammed training days she danced to this music in her studio. She discovered, developed and unfolded her own movements. Improvising on Reich and Bach. Creating new characters with which she could then build words and sentences in changing order. A choreography. Very simple movements that are close to natural movement but slightly abstracted and fixed. So that perfect repetition of the letters, words and sentences is possible. Repetition gives continuity to the dance. From that continuity springs gradual transformation and stacking. So close to human movement that watching her dance leaves a memory of movement in your own body.

She herself says about this memory:

I was curious about it like something you take down from the attic. The body notices most, remembers most. When I took up Phase again, the smell, the colour, the atmosphere really came back, just by doing the movements; that was a chain. You were guided, not by your mental memory, but by the motor skills of things. All things that were well made, stay with you; everything that was not quite right was forgotten. It was like that with me. Everything that was put together with a certain logic came back like that. The emotional was much more difficult to remember. Or it had to have exceptional physical pleasure in it, in the movement, in the turning.


A creation story

At the moment of the creation of the world and of the creation of the human being by God, the energetic principle of blowing in gave rise to an active movement, kept in motion by God and man together ever since.

(Eric Palazzo – The Breath of Spirit and Spiritual Energy – from: The golden thread of the free spirit; Rozekruispers)

Beuys [German contemporary artist] had a special organ for these formative forces, for example when he once told in an interview that his ‘ethereal image’ would look very different if he not only spoke his text, but also sang or danced. The content of his speech – as Beuys probably meant it – would then begin to move, vibrate more sensually and freely and, when danced, would eventually assume the most perfect and beautiful form: the ‘ethereal swan figure’.
(Tattva Viveka 87; translated)

Dance is movement. The dance theatre piece is called ‘Fase’, Four movements to the music of Steve Reich’. Violin Phase is one of those movements. It is the first movement of four, which was first danced and then recorded in its developed form as a dance score. The dancer and the choreographer are the same young woman.

A phase is a structural part of a wave. If we graphically compare two similar waves, we can determine a distance between a similar shape fragment in both waves. That distance is called the phase shift.

The dances in Phase visualise the wave motion – repeating patterns in time – and the phase shift. Phase shift in the relationship between two dancers or in the relationship between the dancer and the music or in the relationship between the patterns in the music or in the relationship between the spectator and what he hears and sees. Phase shift and the interaction between shifted waves is like the face of God becoming visible. In the evolution of the wave movements in relation to each other, a new, a higher level of movement emerges. An emergent ‘melody’.

Perhaps you have seen them before: a small fountain in a round basin, built in clean cut natural stone. Three fine jets of water spout up from a stone-cut form, which in the middle seems to float on the surface of the water. The height reached and the place where the water droplets hit the surface again in a nice arc varies a little. At the point of impact, a pattern of concentric, circular waves is generated. So this whole pattern shifts a little each time. Where the three circular waves meet, a new figure arises from the mutual strengthening or extinction of the waves. Everything moves. Everything reflects the light of the sun. Everything is like a dance.

This emergence of something new from the interaction of creations is already present in the music, in this context the first creation, which is breathed into the dance by the creator, as it were. Minimal music wants to be a process that is (only) the genesis of itself, in contrast to the classical model of music that is representative and tells a story, built up from dialectical oppositions.

In the music of Violin Phase, from the interaction of four lines of music on the violins, which are shifting in phase with each other, occasionally a piece of new melody emerges, which is then picked up and accentuated by one of the violins. For the dancer, this is an invitation to jump up for joy. The same happens when moving round-and-round. The music is strictly structured, completely determined but not causal and not narrative. Still, through interference, a fragment of harmony arises now and then. Through the interaction with the listener who cannot conceive the music, who cannot anticipate the further course of the musical process, of the creation, a strong emotion arises in the person listening.

The creative process of the dance is intuitive, the result of the completed process is thoughtful and balanced. It is scripted in the score.

The choreographer handles the partial concretisation in the repetitive music intuitively. This first creation gives rise to her own second creation in movement, in dance. This one too is still primarily abstract. The building blocks are abstractions of concrete everyday movements made by her. In this, there is an upward movement, from concrete to abstract.

Creation happens on the vertical line between abstract – at the top – and concrete – at the bottom. The creating person stands in the middle position: he reaches into the concrete and can reach upwards into the abstract with his faculties. In the direction of truth. He can make an abstraction of what he perceives in the concrete. The concrete details are left behind and a more essential form remains. Conversely, what he grasps in the abstract from the higher can be brought into a concrete form for down there. That concrete form is perceptible and thus divisible, an object of communication.

On the stage in the forest, a circle and its centre are drawn in the white sand. They locate the dance creation in the space of creation on the stage. Somewhere in the dance Anne Teresa bangs her fist on the floor.

That was me touching the space points of the circle.

The circle and its centre have been the subject of earlier reflections. (Pentagram 2019-2) The rotating movements in the space of the circle are reminiscent of chakras, each in itself,  viewed from above, a circle with a centre in a rotating movement. The source of creation, the source of life. Energy transformation. Formation.

The circle can also be seen as an image of the atom and its nucleus. A defined space of creation, a microcosm.

The dance will develop between the circle perimeter and it’s centre. It will end in the centre.

Ending, however, is the result of building up a physical tension in repeating movements of high intensity. In doing so, I hide neither the pain nor the pleasure of this struggle to maintain precise, intricate patterns for so long. 

(Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker)

If there is a story to be found in the completion of the dance, it is a line of increasing joy and increasing intensity of the movements. And increasing femininity in the movements of the dancer’s body and dress. Until finally reaching the centre, stop, silence. A closing of hands, arms and the body and unfolding again. The end.

The person on the perimeter hears the music. The music is constructed from tone lines and their interferences. It is a kind of supra-music, a pattern on top of the waves that sometimes extinguish each other, sometimes reinforce each other. Music is the first creation, the first acquired form. Man starts on the circumference and dances. He dances to the pattern of the music. He dances to the outline. He dances to and from the centre. In that dance he makes movements that are slightly abstracted from everyday life to acquire the quality of beauty. In that dance, he draws traces in the sand. The dancer creates the rose in the circle. Man draws the rose as an ethereal structure in the microcosm. The rose is semi-permanent in this reality imprisoned in time. Perhaps there is a timeless world in which the rose created by the dancing human soul is permanent?

In October 2021 Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker danced solo again. She danced Bach’s Goldberg Variations. What remained hidden in the fabric of the creative process in 1981 was now allowed to become visible. 



[1] This could be a multimedia project. Check the video on YouTube under Violin Phase

[2] Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker / Rosas Phase, program brochure De Singel June 3-6 1997

[3] A Choreographer’s Score. Phase, Rosas dances, Elena’s Aria, Bartók, by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker & Bojana Cvejic, Mercatorfonds – Rosas. 2012

[4] Rosas FASE A film by Thierry De Mey 2002


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Date: July 19, 2022
Author: Eric Op 't Eynde (Belgium)
Photo: Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash CCO

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