Reviewer: Caroline Schreiber
Cesena starts with a very sudden blackout. A single dim light beams onto the bare stage revealing hints of a large circle made out of salt or sand. The audience is thrown straight into the middle of the night for a journey through to daybreak.
As the audience’s eyes are still getting use to the low light, silence is broken by frantic movement noises of a naked performer running around then stopping, facing the audience at the edge of the stage to sing, a cappella, a piercing wholesome song which fills the air like a thick fog. He then disappears to let the other eighteen performers move in a tight and jerky rhythm up and down the stage and through the circle, almost taking ownership of it.
A wonderful obscurity lets the entrancing voices of early music-inspired vocal group grainedelavoix penetrate the audience as we are asked to second-guess the movement taking place on stage. The nineteen bodies on stage move and sing with acute precision as the performance develops from obscurity to daybreak in a realistic timeframe of nearly two hours. The 14th century Ars Subitor (A More Subtle Art) score presents a series of intricate and complex songs where voices intertwine in a wonderful chaotic harmony essential to the atmosphere created.
As the ‘day breaks’, the stage becomes more visible and we see it completely bare in all directions. It doesn’t resemble a theatre space; rather, it seems like site chosen specifically for this performance. This also means that the performers have nowhere to hide, nowhere to rest which, in turn, demands the same from the audience.
The early music style is embodied by the choreography and many sequences feel like expressions of laments. Dancers and singers form one wholesome body which evolves in varying shapes and expressions. Dancers sing and singers dance throughout, giving the performance an incredible integrity and plunging the audience in a total immersion.
Cesena seems completely self-sufficient while gripping the audience in a sort of trance. Never does the audience feel fully part of the performance, but the intensity of the voices and movements holds a tension which makes us unable to think of anything else. Audience engagement is embodied through our core while we feel completely irrelevant to the events onstage. This unfamiliar experience really gives a sort of distant intimacy, almost as if a passive soul could watch its body from afar.
This is a highly immersive and demanding journey from dusk to daybreak made out of a wonderful marriage of choreography and songs which fill the audience with resonance. De Keersmaeker challenges her cast, stretching them to the very edge of their ability and her audience to keep up with events happening onstage. It is a hard challenge of stamina and concentration which, if overcome, leaves the audience drained of emotion as we witness a sublime moment of this wonderful time of the night (and day) stolen from our otherwise busy and disconnected lives.