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Carriageworks and The 18th Biennale of Sydney present CESNA, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Bjorn Schmelzer, Rosas and graindelavoix.

CESNA is the second part of a dance diptych, the first being EN ATTENDANT, realised by Anne Teresa Keersmaeker with her dance company Rosas and Belgian artists Michel Francois and Ann Veronica Jessens at Carriageworks.

Both pieces were originally performed in the open air, EN ATTENDANT in gathering twilight into darkness, CESNA, on the other hand, is danced in a re-creation of the start of the day as the light begins to arrive, here in Sydney, through the gradual addition of fluorescent colour in the huge indoor venue of Bay21 – from one small row of three light bars hung high in the front of the performing area, to eleven rows of nine. Beginning in a barely perceptible lighting state, a naked male figure runs to the middle of the performance area, almost, into the laps of the front row audience, and begins a series of ‘howled’ responses to a distant ‘fluted’ instrument. Raw. Raucous. And unmelodic. Gradually, in the dimness, the troupe of dancers arrive and in various groupings, their footfall is heard in syncopated noises, more clearly, than the dancers are seen. Singing commences and all the troupe, sing, dance and create visual art of an astoundingly absorbing kind as the light grows more and more brightly. Man coming from the dark into the, a, light?

What ensues is an exploration by the company, “of the fluency between art, dance, and music, in this case Ars Subtilior : a complex, intellectual form of polyphonic music from the 14th century based on dissonance and contrast. Drawing a parallel between the time in which Ars Subtilior developed on the ruins of the Church, when the social, political and religious pillars of the medieval society were literally plagued, and our time of unrest and upheaval, with a set of choices we face, the performance(s) cast doubt on our physicality and ultimately our mortality.”

The work for me, significantly, has been presented as part of the 18th Sydney Biennale. The experience of the work is one that is more movement than dance and the shapes, patterns, groupings and execution, combined with the singing of this very spare music, around a large white chalked circle, is one that required a patience to succeed to get the most from. The durational aspect of the work (it is almost1 hour 45 minutes) becomes part of its power and mesmerising immersion. No patience, no will to participate, the rejection of the work for not being an entertainment, may lead to your focused disaffection and, even, by some, a need to leave.

I am at present engaged in working on Shaw’s SAINT JOAN and as part of my preparation have just read Barbara W. Tuchman’s great history A DISTANT MIRROR – The calamitous 14th Century (Penguin Books,1978),it written as a mirrored reflection of the twentieth century, as well as THE TIME TRAVELLER’S GUIDE TO MEDIEVAL ENGLAND by Ian Mortimer (Vintage Books,2009) and could not help, with the Belgian artists reference and the music, but relate all of my recent knowledge : the Black Death-plague, the warring armies, the desolated populations and the religious iconography, to this work. And although Bruegel is painting two centuries later, I had flashes of image remembrances that helped me give meaning to the abstractions in front of me, and sustained my focus to a position of rapt appreciation and endurance. (Echoes from the 2011 film THE MILL AND THE CROSS, a Polish-Swedish work by Lech Majewski with Rutger Hauer, seen at the 2011 Sydney Film Festival, kept coming back to me).

Co-incidence of study, then, may have helped me enter into an ancient European cultural reflection of our times. For an Australian audience it could have been, as it was for some, a very challenging experience. I loved it. The weaving together of an indigenous history of European man, made relevant for today, as a mirrored meditation about today. It was an experience of tremendous and rarefied beauty for me : the combination of music, movement and images. (Contemporary costume moving from blacks to splashes of colour, shirts and shoes by Anne-Catherine Kunz. Sceneography, using the assets of the actual carriageworks space by Ann Veronica Janssens, with the opening of the back doors and lighting the surviving machinery in the depths of the building.)

Others, Jill Sykes, for instance, in the Sydney Morning Herald can talk more learnedly about the dance/movement aspect of the work. I had a deeply reflective and stimulated time.