Gravitating to the Centre
Olivia Rochette and Gerard-Jan Claes about Mitten
Mitten follows the final weeks of rehearsal of Mitten wir im Leben sind, a performance by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, her company Rosas and cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, based on the six cello suites by Johann Sebastian Bach. The film offers an intimate glance into De Keersmaeker’s meticulous methodology, in which a choreographic universe is built up through a careful study of musical composition. This intense creative process of continuously reshaping and honing, characterised by De Keersmaeker’s inexhaustible longing for precision and detail, is reflected in the patient look by the filmmakers, Olivia Rochette and Gerard-Jan Claes, at the work of the choreographer, the musician and dancers.
Floor Keersmaekers: Can you tell us something about the way this project came about?
Gerard-Jan Claes: Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker asked us to make recordings of the rehearsal process. Both Jean-Guihen and Anne Teresa felt the need to record this exceptional collaboration between choreographer, dancers and musician. They found that a thorough inspection of the score revealed something special, a longing for precision, and they wanted to preserve some traces of that. Anne Teresa wanted us to film on the days Jean-Guihen was present as well because to her, the focus needed to be on their joint work process, together with the dancers. The other aspects to the development of a production were of secondary importance in that respect.
Olivia Rochette: We filmed during a specific period in 2017: a few separate days in June and the last week of rehearsals in July at Rosas as well as the week before the première in Gladbeck, in late August.
How determining a factor was it that you joined at a later stage of the rehearsal process?
Rochette: There were two consequences to our joining in medias res. The rehearsal process had already been going for a while so part of the course had been set. And even though we have some knowledge of Anne Teresa's working method, it remains an enigmatic process to us as well. Arriving later in the process therefore did present an additional difficulty. The group had developed a certain “language,” terms to refer to certain movements and they had made considerable progress into the score analysis. We didn’t always know what exactly was being discussed. Be that as it may, we did find that the work in and of itself spoke of a certain enthusiasm. Even without much background information, it was clear that the score analysis was very thorough, that they had a clear desire to get to the bottom of Bach’s composition. Anne Teresa’s almost obsessive way of working, paying a great deal of attention to the composition and to detail, fascinates us. This was our primary focus. Another consequence of the in medias res situation was that our imagination was taken out of the equation. We couldn’t dream up the film beforehand because we landed right in the middle of it. That made things very concrete very quickly which seemed to argue in favour of a certain clarity and directness.
Claes: The fact that we hadn’t witnessed the rehearsal process from the beginning also made things difficult as regards an audience. Just like us while filming, the viewer does not have all information available. But there is also the position of the audience in relation to such a specific and detailed work process that has such a long history and that uses an idiosyncratic and technical language. Especially during the editing stage, we realised we couldn’t expect the audience to understand every detail of what Anne Teresa, Jean-Guihen and the dancers were doing. We made the conscious decision not to include any interviews or ask for explanations to gain greater insight. We chose observation, our observation, and wanted to capture on tape the fascination that goes with it and bring that across to the audience. The challenge of editing was, on the one hand, to hold on to the fascination and, on the other, not to impose on the audience a trivial anecdote of the rehearsal process or a desire to follow the process in all its technical precision. It had to be and to continue to be a contemplative look that is given the space to become fascinated by the work process.
This is the first time that you shot video of a Rosas performance that was still being created, even before the première.1 Was that the logical next step on your common path?
Rochette: A creation like this is an intimate process and it's not easy letting “outsiders” in. But because we have been working with Anne Teresa for such a long time and have become familiar with each other, I take it that it was not such a big step and that the threshold was lower.
Claes: What I find interesting looking back on the collaboration over the last few years is that there has been a shift in the way Anne Teresa presents her work. We were looking for clarity for this film and I feel that has increasingly become part of Anne Teresa’s work these last few years. Our first trailers for her pieces were more lyrical and poetic with much more close-ups or imagery aiming for more direct abstraction. There has been a noticeable shift in this respect these past years. For instance, dancers are filmed in their entirety, from the feet up. That is in part because Anne Teresa sends us in that direction. She has done the same thing in Rosas’s most recent creations: laying bare the way a performance is made, showing the structure and the building stones to the audience. We had to adapt to that but we also intended to film it this way. It didn’t feel like something forced. It is, I believe, a mutual desire for a form that contains within itself a degree of independence.
Were you able to give direction or steer the content while you were filming or was it mostly a matter of registering and observing at that point?
Rochette: We started by observing but as documentary makers we also look for a certain writing, which means a rhythm and composition. Achieving that requires a certain consistency of form. In a way this seems contrary to the notion of documentary which in turn depends greatly on coincidence. In this film, we intervened very little and there was really no time or space to repeat conversations or actions. The “organisation” of the scenes was mostly a matter of good preparation and a meticulous approach. We made sure we knew exactly what was taking place on any given day. As such, we were continuously occupied with setting the stage and steering the footage. As far as possible, we asked Anne Teresa or Jean-Guihen to take a position here or there because we already had a framing angle in the back of our mind. It is a constant interplay between predetermination and happenstance.
What was the editing process like?
Claes: Our main objective was for the film’s scope to be clear. To that end, we worked with editor Dieter Diependaele. The material was recorded with a specific editing in mind, at least when it came to those separate scenes, but in the case of documentaries material always acquires a certain newfound independence in the course the editing process itself. On the one hand all avenues are open, every scene can end up anywhere in the film, on the other, the material is what it is, it has become immutable. So certain questions come up during the editing stage. These can be the more obvious, formal kind about the amount of information a viewer needs, the length of the scenes. In the case of Mitten, we decided quite quickly that it wouldn’t be a fragmentary tale but that we would follow the line from the rehearsals to the première. At a fairly late stage, we went on to show a version to Anne Teresa. Of course, she is an experienced editor in film as well as in dance. She knows what it means to look for the right dynamic. So she made very specific suggestions aimed at the whole curve, the division of energy within the whole.
Rochette: Her remarks were predominantly directed at dance scenes because naturally she has certain wishes about how her work is presented. Also, you cannot simply start cutting into Bach’s music, you have to respect a certain phrasing. Even though this remains a searching process, ultimately, even Bach’s music becomes material you have to work with and so it must bend to the logic of your editing.
What do you believe is the essence of the film, the predominant theme? From an objective point of view, it is easy to say that the film follows the creative process of the performance, but what is the story behind this?
Claes: During the editing process we realised fairly early on that the film is mostly about concentration. Not only human concentration during a working process but also in terms of a propelling dynamic. A creation process of Anne Teresa clearly works towards something, towards a point that is actually unattainable. Or maybe towards a certain degree of precision or accuracy. Our goal was to show that abstraction, that special situation of a group of people setting off towards a final destination they actually will not be able to reach. The work never ends, not even after the première. When you stop and think about it, the title of the film Mitten may not only refer to the performance Mitten wir im Leben sind but also to the condition of being “in the middle of.” You see people heading to a point which requires them to work with increasing precision.
You are familiar with the work of Rosas and with recording it. What turned out to be the greatest challenge in the making of Mitten?
Rochette: The difficulty of a rehearsal process is already captured in the word “rehearsal”: the repetition of certain acts over and over again. There is a danger that this will come across as trivial so you have to find what is exciting in or about this repetition. Also the space tends to remain the same. In Gladbeck, where the première of Mitten wir im Leben sind took place, the space was exciting but the rehearsal space at Rosas can in no way be compared to, for instance, the Paris Opera, where Rain was filmed. In a manner of speaking, that set had a whole cinematic world ready and waiting. The Rosas Performance Space, by comparison, is a bare, uniform space without much in the way of traffic. But there are ways to work with that as well. Such a black box may be bare, but it provides abstraction, too.
Claes: It was the hard part of the situation but, at the same time, it was also the goal. Film is at some point always about something strange you want to discover as the maker. That is why we specifically did not want to discuss things that were outside of the working process, like the figure of Anne Teresa or the unavoidable struggle such a creation is.
Rochette: We make films based on observation. It is not part of our style of film making to shed light on all aspects and interview everyone involved.
Claes: You could say that Mitten contains a dream about objectivity and intent simply does not enter into the equation. Although it is not about showing things the way they are because by definition that is impossible. Filming always adds an angle, a filter. But we wanted to keep our interest pure. It is about daring to acknowledge the independence of the material: “this is enough.”
- 1Claes and Rochette have been creating trailers and image recordings of Rosas performances since 2009. In 2012, Rain was released, a documentary about the transmission, by Rosas, of the eponymous choreography to the ballet dancers of the Opéra de Paris.
With kind permission of Rosas
On the Day of Dance, 27 April 2019, Mitten will have its theatrical release, and will be projected in a large number of cinemas and art centres in Belgium. Afterwards the film will stay on the regular program of Cinema Sphinx (Ghent), Cinema ZED (Leuven) and Cinema Palace (Brussels). You can find all the screening dates on the website of Olivia Rochette and Gerard-Jan Claes.