Six years ago, when she was studying at New York University and showing pieces on small dance concerts, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker was pushing the overworked genre of minimalism into new strata of physical endurance and expressive power. Back in her native Belgium, De Keersmaeker established an all-female company, Rosas, which gained immediate acclaim and has now made two appearances on the Brooklyn Academy Next Wave series. Oddly, for this season at BAM the company brought a 1984 piece, ``Elena's Aria,'' instead of a recent work, so we still don't know quite where the 27-year-old choreographer is now. With ``Elena's Aria,'' though, she seems to have retreated toward the maudlin precincts of European Tanztheater. ``Elena's Aria'' uses the lexicon of Pina Bausch, et al., to create a gloomy atmosphere of feminine loss and alienation. A long row of leatherette-upholstered side chairs is placed across the back of the space, surrounded by the dusty jumble of unused stage equipment - ladders, furniture shoved into the corners, curtains hoisted out of the way.
This setting - sacred not only to Bausch but to the earlier master of choreographed spectacles, Maurice B'ejart - exposes dancers watching not only other dancers but also the audience, signifying that both we and they are on display.
De Keersmaeker's five women (Michele Anne De Mey, Nadine Ganase, Roxane Huilmand, Fumiyo Ikeda, and herself) are wearing unbecoming sheath dresses, black high-heeled shoes, and hairdos that get scraggly and limp when they begin to move: Tanztheater code for Women Oppressed by Their Sexuality.
After a sort of prologue during which Ikeda reads a passage from Tolstoy in halting English, the curtain rises on the chairs, with three women seated in a very dim light. Suddenly two of the women get up, grip the backs of their chairs. Spasmodically, almost angrily, they wheel around behind the chairs, their momentum sending them one chair farther down the row, while the third woman shrinks out of their way and ends up sprawled across her seat, halfway to the floor.
This intricate but purposeless movement sequence provides the core material for the whole dance.
Initially derived from naturalistic actions - sitting, waiting, pivoting on the instep, walking - the movement accumulates detail, and at the same time grows less ordinary. Simple sitting suggests crossed legs; the problem of what to do with the hands is momentarily solved by gripping the sides of the chair or wrapping one arm around the waist, or absent-minded primping.
But this seemingly personal material is embedded in the movement phrase, where it can be manipulated by the conventional means of dancemaking. The gesture gets repeated, exaggerated, transferred to another part of the body, multiplied on two or three or all five women. In other words, what has obvious roots as expressive gesture is turned into abstract dance progressions before our eyes. In doing this, De Keersmaeker dismantles the social meaning of moves and mannerisms associated with pre-liberation females. We see these images in '50s movies - the provocative outward thrust of women's hips as they walk, the coy tweak at the hemline, the bent knee drawing our eye to a silken ankle.
In De Keersmaeker's dance, these become large and often unwieldy movements, sequences that build into tumbling, running, crawling, and teetering tiptoe journeys. The ``deconstruction'' process is underscored by a short silent film of demolition projects where they blow up the building so it collapses neatly into its own basement.
De Keersmaeker also links her archaic and hobbling gestures with thwarted romance. Women sit at the side of the stage and read in different languages. The texts all seem to be about women having a trying time with their men. But the self-absorbed dancers don't relate to each other personally, except when individuals momentarily react to the rest of the group as a threat or a compelling power.
De Keersmaeker's craftsmanship is ingenious and beautifully wrought, but I don't understand why a young woman today does a dance like this. Is she trying to teach us a lesson? Surely it's one the wildly cheering audience had already learned. Perhaps she's reminding us of women's history as sex objects in order to gain sympathy for the difficult lives they lead when they choose independence.