A Love Supreme by Salva Sanchis, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker/ Rosas comes to the U.S.
Overtures are rare at New York Live Arts. You get your ticket, visit the restroom, maybe buy a drink. The creators of A Love Supreme, Salva Sanchis and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, warm us up in a more intimate way for what is to follow. A half hour before the performance is due to start, saxophonist Tony Jarvis and bass player Nathan Peck infiltrate NYLA’s small lobby, dueling amid those waiting to get in, occasionally moving apart to get even closer to, say, a chattering group of friends or an attentive listener. The jazz spirit, the freedom within limits, the camaraderie unfasten us from our usual dance-performance expectations. And after we’re seated and told to turn off our cell phones, we sit for what seems quite a while in the dark, cooling down, getting easy in our skins.
The name of the dance is identical to that of the music we’ll be hearing. If this were 1965, we might be in France, nursing drinks and waiting for John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones to play their epochal A Love Supreme for us. Where the hell are they? Patience.
Consider the backstory. In 1957, Coltrane had had a spiritual awakening, and despite intermittent tumbles back into alcohol and heroin addiction, he was ready to praise God for lifting him out of that abyss. In 1964, over five intense days in seclusion, Coltrane wrote several themes for A Love Supreme, mapped out the rest, and divided the piece into four sections: Acknowledgment, Resolution, Pursuance, Psalm. The opening four-note theme corresponds to the syllables of the suite’s title.
In 2005, Sanchis danced in De Keersmaeker’s original adventure with the quartet’s recording when De Keersmaeker’s Belgium-based company, Rosas, premiered it. He collaborated on the choreography for this version as well— responsible for the movement vocabulary, while De Keersmaeker devised the overall structure. Like the musicians, the four dancers performing at NYLA improvise on that vocabulary, as well as executing set movement passages. To unite them intimately with Coltrane’s original plan, each responds to one of the musicians: Thomas Vantuycom to Coltrane, Robin Haghi to pianist Tyner (Bilal El Had alternates in the role with Haghi), Jason Respilieux with bass player Garrison, and José Paulo dos Santos with percussion master Jones. When a musician drops out of the recording, the corresponding dancer rests or leaves the stage.
We first see the dancers in dimness, lit only by a single overhead lamp. No music. They move sinuously but also articulate such details as a minimal, crisp headshake. They lean on one another. They form a chain and pull against that restriction, breaking away into individual statements. Three of them lift a fourth. Four of them tangle. Perhaps they’re sketching out their game plan.
Then everyone leaves but Vantuycom. For what seems a long time, he just stands there, his hands at his sides. He’s concentrating on something. Remembering? Planning? His first moves are minimal changes of direction. Then, suddenly, he steps into a big, slow spin, stops, and raises one arm forward, his hand turned sideways as if to push back a door. While he’s dancing meditatively around the space, he often shifts his focus, making us aware of his awareness of the place in which he finds himself. Darker tracery on the gray floor looks like a drawing: curved outlines against intersecting straight ones. Is this a mapping of what we’ll see in full later?
These men are marvels. The music is a terror, a cauldron of interflowing sounds, a thicket with a wind blowing through it. Forget any hot, easy associations you have with the word “jazz.” The four slip into unison, decide to venture on different paths, face different directions. Like the musicians, they calm down to back up a soloist; at one point, dos Santos and Respilieux work side by side and in synchrony at the back of the stage, while Vantuycom dances alone. Haghi watches him closely, while also at times reflecting the pair’s moves. Pretty soon Vantuycom rests, and Haghi takes a solo.
There’s a loose springiness to the men’s dancing. They rarely vault high into the air, just leave a momentary space between their feet and the floor. We can begin to identify steps—this twist, this upward reach of both arms, this droop over; it’s a rich and variegated vocabulary but not an ornate one. The musicians’ aural flights are often reflected in the dancers’ bodies; we can, if we wish, link a ripple in a guy’s torso with a flutter of the sax. The tasks of the men we see require a constant alertness to one another. We sense them considering which open space to pass through, when to be drawn into someone else’s pattern; occasional mutual grins tell you that a slight surprise paid off. The music’s dynamics are echoed by such moves as an off-balance suspension that’s caught before it causes the dancer to fall. Or maybe he does fall, but, with amazing speed and liquidity, is up and going again.
Jan Versweyveld’s lighting changes startlingly at the beginning of what I believe to be the third section. The lights almost go out, then come on again. The stage looks bleak, but the dancers cast shadows. Jones’s ferocious drums lure dos Santos into his solo. All the solos—Respilieux’s answer to Garrison’s bass follows before long—are remarkable; the men riff imaginatively off the themes without transgressing. (It’s interesting to consider that the musicians’ long-ago improvisations, are, so to speak, written in stone, while at every performance, these terrific dancers have the freedom to respond differently to them). Vantuycom dancing Coltrane is a marvel. A tall man who moves with a powerful softness, he loses himself in the saxophone’s wild melodies and caressing heat.
This is the penultimate sentence in Coltrane’s liner notes to the 1964 recording: “May we never forget that in the sunshine of our lives, through the storm and after the rain – it is all with God – in all ways and forever.” Psalm, the last section, embodies that, but also celebrates Coltrane’s relationship to his music and to the musicians with whom he worked. What was sketched out in the silent opening of Sanchis and De Keersmaeker’s A Love Supreme reappears in full emotional color. We recognize the ways in which these eight men support one another across decades, collaborate to make the music, to make the dance. The first time three dancers raise Vantuycom/Coltrane, he’s prone and spraddle-legged in the air. The next time they bear his weight he’s soaring as the harsh lights go out.
A Love Supreme was shown at Philadelphia’s Fringe Festival before coming to New York. The group goes on to perform it at Ohio State University’s Wexner Center, Princeton Unversity’s Lewis Center for the Arts, and the Walker Center for the Arts in Minneapolis.