CN D Magazine

#6 june 24

Dakar, Brussels and Then Paris: Drumming, Supersized

Isabelle Calabre

Drumming XXL at MC93, Bobigny © Jérémy Piot

With its hypnotic gestures and repetitive musical motif, Drumming might be the most representative piece of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s body of work. As part of the tradition of taking on monumental projects at the Paris Conservatory – after proposing revivals of pieces by Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, and Lucinda Childs, each time involving some 100 students – it’s now the Belgian choreographer’s turn to have her work supersized. To do so, the Parisian dance school joined forces with the Brussels-based P.A.R.T.S. (a training center founded by de Keeresmaeker and profiled by CN D Magazine in 2023), as well as with the École des Sables in Senegal.

Turning one of renowned Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s signature dance works into a creative bridge between three countries and an infinite number of cultures: this is the exciting challenge posed by the epic restaging of Drumming, set to a musical composition of the same name by Steve Reich. The brainchild of Cédric Andrieux, Director of Choreographic Studies at the National Conservatory for Music and Dance in Paris, Charlotte Vandevyver, Director of P.A.R.T.S. in Brussels, and Wesley Ruzibiza and Alesandra Seutin, Co-Directors of École des Sables in Senegal, the project brings together sixty-two performers from the three schools. An ambitious collaboration that culminated in performances called Drumming XXL in early June at the MC93 theatre in Bobigny and in front of the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris.

With the exception of the P.A.R.T.S. students – who learned the 1998 piece the previous year, as de Keersmaeker’s repertoire is part of their curriculum – the training for this revival took place at the École des Sables. Also known as the International Center for Traditional and Contemporary African Dances, the school was founded by Germaine Acogny and Helmut Vogt in 1998 in Toubab Dialo, a coastal town south of Dakar. For a full month, eleven students from the Paris Conservatory worked with twelve African dancers under the direction of Clinton Stringer, a teacher at P.A.R.T.S. who was part of de Keersmaeker’s Rosas Company when Drumming was created in 1998. The three groups went on to meet for the first time in late May in Brussels, followed by a week of final rehearsals in Paris. While all dancers involved benefited from a rich exchange of ideas, the students from École des Sables, who had been geographically and stylistically more distant from the Belgian choreographer’s work compared to their European counterparts, seem to have gained the most from the experience.

Drumming XXL at MC93, Bobigny © Jérémy Piot

Seutin, who is also regularly invited to teach at P.A.R.T.S., paid particular attention to the selection of candidates. “We contacted around twenty dancers, all of whom had previously participated in our workshops,” she explains. “We sent them a video including a short sequence from Drumming. They were asked to send us two interpretations: first a very faithful one, and a second more personal one. In this way, we determined who we felt was capable of grasping this aesthetic.”

Marie-Olivier Nkene Ndong, a young 22-year-old Gabonese dancer, was offered the chance to join the dance team at the end of a course she took on-site in February. “I wanted to experiment with contemporary dance, and I had seen Anne Teresa’s work on the internet, including some excerpts from Drumming,” explains the dancer, who has a background in hip-hop, krump, and traditional African dance. “It seemed far removed from what I was doing and far beyond my physical capabilities,” she says. “But it made me want to understand how it all worked.”

During the initial four week rehearsal, students had to keep up a lively pace. They had class every morning at 11am, alternating between ballet classes and Acogny’s technique – which were replaced during their stay in Brussels by Pilates training. In the afternoons, they had four and a half hours of rehearsal, until 6pm. “Technically, it was very difficult for me, with all those jumps I wasn’t used to. After a week, I had a big moment of doubt,” admits Nkene Ndong. “Fortunately, I was able to talk it over with Clinton, who restored my self-confidence and helped me find in my own body what I could use and draw from.”

Drumming XXL at MC93, Bobigny © Jérémy Piot

Seutin, who followed the students at her school throughout the process, agrees. “Everyone had to show great adaptability. It was the same for the French kids, who were confronted with a new environment. But once the friction caused by cultural or religious differences were overcome, a group dynamic was formed.” Stringer says he was delighted to see “how the different styles of dance that each of the participants brought to the table could actually converse with Drumming’s structures.” Rehearsals were broken into two phases: learning the original material in all its geometric complexity (the choreography is made up of variations of a single movement phrase repeated in a loop), a step which was followed by a more creative phase. “The dancers then had to reuse these shapes to create duets and trios. This gave rise to some surprising hybrid forms,” explains Stringer enthusiastically.

Nkene Ndong says she learned a great deal from her “first major project as a performer,” particularly in terms of work methods. The experience has spurred her on, she says, “to learn even more,” and given her the boost of confidence she needs to approach to Johana Malédon, Bienvenue Bazié, or even Germaine Acogny – the choreographers she most admires.

Isabelle Calabre is a journalist specializing in culture and dance, who works with several magazines: Danza&Danza, CN D Magazine and Le Parisien Week-end. She is the author of the book Hip hop et Cies, 1993-2012 as well as the YA book Je danse à l’Opéra (ed. Parigramme). Additionally, she has conducted research on West Indian and Guyanese quadrilles that has led to an essay submitted to the CN D in 2023, as well as an inventory of theses Creole social dances for their inclusion in France's Universal Cultural Heritage list. In 2024, she published the illustrated album Moi aussi je danse le quadrille (ed. Caraïbéditions). This is the first title in a new collection showcasing the diversity of dances and the children who practise them.

Translated with (free version)

Drumming XXL was presented on May 31 at place de la Bourse in Brussels, from June 5 to 8 at MC93, June 9 in La Villette 

Other works from Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker on tour
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