Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Anani Dodji Sanouvi

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 5)

When it came to choosing who was to be her protégé for a year, Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker took a risk. In opting for Anani Dodji Sanouvi, a young dancer originally from Togo, she was fully aware of how different their approaches were. That was precisely what interested her – the difference to be explored by both of them.

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Anani Dodji Sanouvi

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 2 of 5)

An Interview with Anani Dodji Sanouvi early in the mentorship

How was your first meeting with Anne Teresa?
The first day was difficult. Anne Teresa asked me to do lots of things… She thought my way of dancing was “special”. So, our first meeting was… interesting! I wasn’t expecting us to hit it off from the start.

She suggested a dance sequence by someone here and gave me carte blanche to interpret it as I liked. She had chosen a score by American composer Steve Reich and took me to a studio to listen to it. Some of Steve Reich’s pieces are strongly influenced by the traditional rhythms and percussions of the Eve, an ethnic group from West Africa who live in Benin, Ghana and Togo… my people! Incredible, isn’t it?

How did you manage?
I started out by watching a lot, observing the dancers in the company, and asking them questions. I was trying to find a way to work with the musicians. Little by little, things fell into place naturally. Anne Teresa found just the right words to tell me: seek your way, find your own words, exercises and rules for the dancers and musicians.

And now?
Now everything’s fine. I still need more time to get to know her better. She has a real personality; she’s very demanding when it comes to work. I learned how to see her differently by watching her dance alone in London. She choreographs her pieces on the structure of the music, the rhythm, not on the sound of the rhythm. She controls the space perfectly; you could even say she trades in it. I was moved by this discovery. I even said to myself, “I really haven’t made the wrong choice, even if it was she who chose me! But from then on, I have always seen her as a dancer and a choreographer rolled into one”.

What is a typical day like for you in Brussels?
I go to Rosas from 9 to 11 a.m. for the class with American choreographer Chrysa Parkinson. Then I rehearse pieces like Rain and Drumming to music by Steve Reich. In the afternoon, I go to Parts where I take part in an improvisation techniques workshop developed by William Forsythe. If I retain one thing from each session, that keeps me happy.

What is the greatest challenge you have set for yourself for this mentoring year?
To achieve the famous dialogue between dancer and musician. With the help of Anne Teresa, I’ll master working with space. I’d really like to continue exploring the risks musicians can take with me in improvising. Experiment without any prior arranging. The African musicians I’ve worked with say the rhythms exist inside us and sometimes refuse to play them differently. I must find those terms, codes and rules that Anne told me about.

What really makes that special bond between you and Anne Teresa?
Inner silence. I think that’s what we have in common. I understood her when I saw her moving on stage. This kind of silence is a very strong, very soft energy that you have inside you and that you dance and play to the music. I saw it in her. I’m in the right place at the right time, and that’s priceless.

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Anani Dodji Sanouvi

A year of mentoring

Merging differences (Chapter 3 of 5)

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Anani Dodji Sanouvi have one thing in common: their love of dancing. To turn that into a passion shared between a mentor and her protégé, all it took was for each of them to put something of themselves into it. The famous Flemish choreographer and the young African dancer did much more than that: they made the effort to get to know each other. At first, their differences were daunting.

The first time Anani set foot in the Brussels studios, he sat on the ground with his back against the studio wall and watched, saying to himself over and over, until it became an inner echo: “What can I possibly do in that space? How can she get 15 people to move together in such a small place?” Positioning movements in space and time is De Keersmaeker’s art – a magic that seems natural but was in fact developed over years of intensive work on gesture, movement and mastery of space, and also on music, the backbone.

The first time De Keersmaeker asked him to do something, it was difficult for both of them. Anani did what he was told, but it wasn’t right. How could they converse in the same language when one of them read music and the other didn’t? So she suggested a different phrase of dance, leaving him free to interpret it – bringing him into the studio first to listen to the music, composed by Steve Reich: “And as it happens, one of the influences on this composer is the music of the Ewe, an African ethnic group... which I belong to! Incredible, isn’t it?” he recalls. “The way that Anne Teresa wanted me to dance to this music unsettled me a lot. Her way of hearing and understanding the rhythms, which are very strong in this piece, were quite different from those that my culture, rich with African polyrhythms instilled in me. I got a bit confused, I did my best.” But it wasn’t enough. So he went into a corner and began to watch the others.

The first time De Keersmaeker explained movement to him as seeing a spiral in a square, he raised his eyes to heaven. It wasn’t that he found it bad, but it wasn’t his way of looking at dancing. His way puts more faith in instinct, intuition, improvisation. From his point of view, the way things are done in this part of the West is too mathematical, too grammatical, geometric, rigid. Then he realised that she was dancing to the structure while he was dancing to the rhythms, and that these two ways of comprehending the music are at the same time opposed and complementary. De Keersmaeker understood, and let him do it his way.

The differences between mentor and protégé eventually found a balance between the intuitive and the analytical. In the end, what Anani will do will be neither contemporary dance nor African dance: “What I dance is Anani!” Everything influences his body, which conserves the memory of all the dances of his inner Africa. De Keersmaeker recognises this: “He’s like a sun – he has extraordinary radiance.” De Keersmaeker is visibly moved when she sees him dance in Brussels with a friend from Togo: “That’s happiness, because everything is flowing straight from the heart.”

There is a difference between two categories of artists: those who dance, and those who are dancers. “Anani is definitely a dancer”, she says, no small compliment, coming from her.

Extracted from an article written by Pierre Assouline for Mentor & Protégé, a magazine documenting the 2006/2007 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Anani Dodji Sanouvi

A year of mentoring

After a year with a master (Chapter 4 of 5)

Anani Dodji Sanouvi talks about his year as a Rolex protégé

You looked lost when you arrived at this school in Brussels. One year on, have you found yourself?
I didn’t know my language – I discovered it here. The best way of putting it would be to say that my results are positive. Anne Teresa passed on her experiences and observations to me – a certain way of moving, lots of things…

Was there one key moment?
Yes – one stage in the tour, in Luxembourg. We were putting on a Steve Reich evening, showing what we had prepared in Brussels. As we were short of time, the work hadn’t been finished. And there, during a rehearsal, I felt something holding me back. As always, this problem with reading music...

You didn’t share the same approach…
My sense of music isn’t analytical, it’s instinctive. We noticed this difference in our approaches, and I offered to work at it on my own, but Anne Teresa said: “No, we’re going to do it my way!” She didn’t force me, but she steered me towards her way. I was absolutely delighted. From then on I began to find my own way, by reconciling the irreconcilable: taking the musical structure into account right from the start while at the same time following my own reading of the music.

What is the most important piece of advice Anne Teresa gave you?
There have been so many! Maybe when she told me to create my own codes and my own signs. Then I explained to her how I wanted to work with my musicians. Anne Teresa is someone who doesn’t talk a lot – she prefers to show you, to demonstrate. After that, you keep trying, you work and you tell yourself something has to come out of it, something you can’t predict. When you’re with someone who does rather than talks, all you have to do is open your eyes and take it in.

You were really left with no alternative…
By my situation as much as by her. I have everything here in Brussels: a structure, areas to dance, teachers, a studio, technicians, musicians… So, what’s missing when everything is there for you? Work.

What did she pass on to you apart from dancing?
Patience. You know what her favourite phrase is? “Don’t worry, we’ll sort it out.” And she always does. I like that mentality. I know that, given the time she devotes to her children, the time she gives me is sacrosanct, so I really make the most of it. She’s a person who’s driven the whole time by constant dissatisfaction. She never feels something is finished, and I like that.

What are you still missing?
I still need time. I’m too impatient. When I came to this school I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew what I was looking for. Now I’m going to have to digest everything I’ve learnt. It’ll all resurface again all right, once things have had time to settle. Basically, I had the good luck to be in the right place at the right time.

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Anani Dodji Sanouvi

A year of mentoring

Interview with the mentor (Chapter 5 of 5)

Interview with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker

In the end, you and Anani managed to find a common language…
It took a while, but we did get there! It was a challenge for me, at the start, as his approach to the relationship between music and dancing is very different from our methods. I’m more analytical – I use scores, whereas for him it’s all purely instinctive. But Anani is terribly eager to learn. The Steve Reich evening was decisive because of the lack of time, and the pressure – in order to guide him I had to open other doors for him.

Would you describe his method as “African”?
That would be simplistic. His reference point is intuition. I was blocking him. But I didn’t want to force anything at all on him. We had to find a balance between my concept of space and his own inspiration.

Did you learn from him?
Definitely. The very first thing was to re-examine things I took for granted. He’s a very generous young man; he’s not afraid to venture into unknown territory and isn’t really aware of the danger. That gives him great freedom. And since he’s determined, he’ll give things a try.

But what method did you use to help him advance?
To begin with, doing things very tightly, being very rigorous, and getting him to work within that framework – then letting him go so that he’d let himself go and let his instinct take over.

To you, does his talent seem obvious?
Yes, obvious. But it’s in a very particular register, because of his past. To be able to help him, I tried to adapt to it. His dancing is very closely related to architecture and the earth. He dances very low down, crouching, deeply rooted in his origins. His style of dancing always carries an element of history, as it always tells stories. This results in a form which is brought about by movement, transported by his energy. He is more the intuitive type. The very opposite of me!

You often use the word “disturbing” when talking about your work with him…
Because it is! He forces me to ask myself questions about what can be globalized and shared when you link dance, music and identity. What dominates? That’s a problem.

It’s hard to imagine that two people with such dissimilar personalities wouldn’t clash sometimes...
I soon felt I had responsibility for him. He has the faults that go with his qualities, so he needs to work on a certain rigour, a certain realism.

What’s your favourite memory?
Being alone with him. When he’s not here with us, like at the rehearsals just now, I miss him. He needs more of our technique before he can join the company. But he’s a determined young man. He’ll get there. When this mentoring experience is over, I hope we’ll continue to see one another and dance together.