Dancing and singing at the break of dawn: slowly waking up to Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s ‘Cesena’ (Avignon)

Bonne nuit!, I heard the last party people on the quiet and empty streets of the French city of Avignon say to each other. Bonne nuit? Good morning, that is. While they were going to bed, at 4AM, I was walking towards that ancient Palais Des Papes, for the world premiere of Cesena, the newest performance by Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, presented at the Festival d’Avignon. Hers is a stunt everybody over here is talking about: Cesena – performed in open air – is using only the natural light the sun brings. It starts (at 5AM) when it’s still dark and when it’s over, two hours later, the day has come.

I’m not the only crazy one, in this hot and overcrowded city. Some 8.000 contemporary dance lovers will get up in the middle of the night, these days, to witness the break of dawn in the company of the dancers of Rosas and the singers of Graindelavoix. For four nights Cesena will be performed at the Cour d’Honneur of the Palais des Papes, the most prestigious stage of the Festival d’Avignon. It’s a truly unique experience, because when Cesena will be touring, it will be performed in theaters at night, which means: the same atmosphere will be recreated with artificial light (spots).

Here, in Avignon, in a certain sense, the performance starts already when the alarm next to your bed goes off. You wonder which clothes to put on, for a premiere at 5AM (I did see some stiletto heels on those cobble stones outside the Palais). You smell that freshly baked bread, from those bakery shops that aren’t open yet, as you walk through those empty streets towards that Palais des Papes. You wait and enter the Cour d’Honneur through that one door with those red curtains, together with those 2.000 dance lovers that aren’t really awake yet either.

When the lights go out, it’s completely dark, in that big Cour with those high walls, that has no roof. You barely see that one guy running on stage, walking towards the audience, screaming his lungs out. Then the other 18 dancers and singers enter the stage. It’s difficult to see what they are doing, but you do hear them. You hear their singing voices, and you hear their feet, and their bodies, as they run and slide, and destroy that big circle of white sand in the middle of the stage. You hear the grating sound it makes.

And gradually, as the rising sun brings more light, you begin to see more. You see faces, bodies. You notice the differences. You notice that there are sixteen men on stage and three women, and that some of them do seem to be better at dancing than others. You see their nice clothes, blue and black. And slowly Cesena unfolds (the title is a reference to the Cesena bloodbath in 1377, during the War of the Eight Saints, which contributed to the end of the Avignon Papacy). It’s a meticulously constructed chain of scenes, whereby sometimes a couple of dancers are put forwards and then the whole group moves in ever-changing tableaux.

More than ever this is a choreography as a ‘breathing’ organism, which is made possible by the fact that everybody is singing and everybody is dancing. And this singing and moving ‘body’ is all there is. There are no extra effects, no other instruments. Just voices (singing aptly chosen 14th century songs; ‘ars subtilior’) and moving bodies. And that light, of course, that gets brighter and brighter by the minute. There’s just one added extra, by visual artist Ann Veronica Janssens: at a certain moment somebody picks up a mirroring panel on the roof of the Palais. It should reflect the beams of the sun, but during the premiere clouds prevented this from happening.

Presenting a performance at the break of dawn is in a certain way, of course, a gigantic gimmick. Which means that the question remains: is Cesena a performance that would/will impress an audience without that gimmick? I felt En Atendant, performed in Avignon last year while the sun was setting, was struggling a bit with that, but I think Cesena succeeds better. To begin with: there’s an abundance of details, which means that Cesena never becomes tiring to watch. The dancers are really astounding. On top of that: the more they perform this, the flow of this performance will become better. The pulling force, so to say, will become stronger. Cesena, at the premiere, was a performance that was beautiful to watch, the whole time, but that didn’t really sweep you off your feet.

It is, in some sense, as in a dream. You know what you’ve seen, after you’ve opened your eyes, but when you’re fully awake, you start going over the different scenes and elements once more, trying to put them together. And you start wondering, for instance, about a few details (why were they kicking that one guy all of a sudden, and why those pieta-like moments?). As I was doing that, the city of Avignon was slowly waking up. The morning papers were on display. The first coffees and breakfasts were being served, outside. I was smiling. A truly unforgettable night.

(Note on November 22: you’ll find a review of the ‘indoor’ version of ‘Cesena’ here.)


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