Carlos Garbin (centre) in EXIT ABOVE (Rosas). Photo © Anne Van Aerschot


Out of the blues

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Carlos Garbin (centre) in EXIT ABOVE (Rosas). Photo © Anne Van Aerschot
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Rosas dancer Carlos Garbin talks about becoming a Rosas musician in Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s new Exit Above

One of the prime keys to Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s longevity and continued poignancy as a choreographer is surely her knack for harnessing the talents, especially musical, of other artists. EXIT ABOVE – after the tempest is signed by four names, spanning as many generations: De Keersmaeker herself (63), Jean-Marie Aerts (71), producer and guitarist of 80s eurorock band TC Matic, who has long harboured a desire to work with De Keersmaeker, Meskerem Mees (23), Belgian singer-songwriter of Ethiopian origin, a rising star in the world of folk who has always wanted to dance, and Carlos Garbin (43), dancer-musician and performer with Rosas since 2009. Garbin’s knowledge of blues music and prodigious guitar playing provides the backbone of the work, both rhythmically and in the soulful rendering of the human plight which is the essence of the blues.

Left to right: Jean-Marie Aerts, Meskerem Meesm Ann Teresa De Keersmaeker, Carlos Garbin. Photo © Bea Borgers
Left to right: Jean-Marie Aerts, Meskerem Meesm Ann Teresa De Keersmaeker, Carlos Garbin. Photo © Bea Borgers

Coming to De Keersmaeker’s famous PARTS school in 2004 from the municipal dance company of Caxias do Sul, Brazil, Garbin – the least well-known name of the four co-creators – joined Rosas straight after graduating. Never considering himself a typical Rosas dancer, his somewhat gangly and introverted presence has nevertheless been in no less than thirteen productions, including sharing the stage alone with De Keersmaeker in Twice, the choreographer’s experimental sequel to the solo Once, on the music of Joan Baez.

About 10 years ago, Garbin, developed an interest in the blues that rapidly became an obsession. His musical contribution to Twice convinced Rosas to temporarily release him from the company and contribute to a scholarship he’d earned to study the blues in the USA.

‘If I wasn’t dancing, I was at home playing guitar for hours and hours. It wasn’t easy to master the very specific sliding, gliding, chord progressions and fingerpicking techniques,’ he explained, ‘but I worked all the time.’

Rehearsing with the company during the day, he’d organise evening concerts in cafes throughout Belgium, together with other blues obsessed musicians.

EXIT ABOVE is really tailor-made for me,’ he continues. ‘Anne Teresa gave me enormous freedom to just be me and do what I really love to do. Even the retunings of the guitars are integral to the work, she made sure they could be clearly heard by the audience. I’m totally at ease in this piece. I do the technical setting of the four guitars in front of the audience, and it’s become a sort of ritual.’

The rhythmical structures and the alternative tunings of the traditional blues guitars, and especially those found in the seminal song Walkin’ Blues, associated with influential musician Robert Johnson (born Mississippi, 1911), feeds the beating heart of EXIT ABOVE and knits the other musical styles and dance movements together.

‘There’s a real affinity with the blues and its roots in walking rhythms and Anne Teresa’s ongoing preoccupation with walking being at the origin of her dance. Also, the notions of repetition and question-and-answer are to be found both in the music and in her choreography. As both dancer and musician, all this feels very natural to me.’

The hour-long work is an effusive amalgam of blues rhythms, rock reverberations, poignant poetry (sung by Mees in the most sensitive and richly ranged of voices), and movement: from the soberest of pacing to a joyous proliferation of hip-hop infused, recognisably Rosas-marked movements, all individually flavoured by the diversity of the dancers who perform them. It’s an embroidery whose threads of different colours are seemingly being woven in real time to create textures and patterns whose end motif gives us a clear, sometimes haunting, but always human picture of now.

Garbin’s unassuming, hybrid presence – dancer-musician, composer-performer, standing between the younger dancers and the older generations – is a compass point. Symbolically and literally, his audible counting keeps the other dancers cued as they weave through the pentagonal floor patterns that have become a leitmotif of De Keersmaeker’s work.

‘Being in between everyone in age and having done so many creations with Rosas, I feel I can understand all the points of view. In the past, it was sometimes to be frustrating to work as just a dancer with Anne Teresa. She’s interested in so many different things all at once: pop music, Shakespeare… it takes a long time and lots of discussion for her to understand what she needs and to be able to take decisions. These days, as I am older and have a double role in the creation process, I can understand her point of view more, and therefore I don’t have this feeling.’

Possibly even more than other creations, EXIT ABOVE – after the tempest is the fruit of wide collaboration: Gabin, together with Mees, Aerts and dramaturge Wannes Gyselinck, worked tightly on the music and lyrics to echo the traditional core blues structures whilst painstakingly adapting the melodies and texts. The loops within the music indeed seem to mirror the loops created by the movements of the dancers. Shades of Shakespeare’s characters from The Tempest can be glimpsed in the performers’ interactions, and snippets of the text appear in the lyrics. Somehow, an organic order is tangible in what could otherwise be perceived as a strew of styles.

Exit Above by Rosas. Photo © Anne Van Aerschot
Photo © Anne Van Aerschot

At the very start of the piece whilst Garbin is attending to his instruments, singer-songwriter Mees recites, in faultless German, from Walter Benjamin’s 1940 prophetic essay, inspired by Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus. ‘The angel in the painting’, says the text, ‘is blown backwards into the future by a violent storm, while before his horrified eyes, all the rubble of centuries of history comes crashing down.’ This is a solemn start to what, for me, becomes one of the most exhilaratingly yet relevant works of the day – not least because of the amount of freedom the markedly diverse cast seem to command. Within the rich and multi-layered soundscape, they do indeed whip up a powerful storm. 

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