Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker b. 1963
Rosas Danst Rosas (1983)
Duration: 57 minutes

Rosas Danst Rosas
Sadler's Wells, London
Luke Jennings
The Observer, Saturday 12 September 2009
The Guardian, UK

The Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker launched her company, Rosas, in 1983, and won immediate attention for her musicality and her austere, pure dance minimalism. Fase, her first piece, used repetition to almost hallucinatory effect, as she and another female dancer whirled and spun in interlocking patterns to a shimmering score by Steve Reich. Fase was followed the same year by Rosas Danst Rosas, which applied the same repetitive, minimalist style to music by Thierry de May and Peter Vermeersch. De Keersmaeker and her company have revived both pieces many times in the quarter century since their creation, but Rosas Danst Rosas remains the more confrontational of the two, retaining its considerable power to baffle, frustrate and intrigue.

The piece starts with four female dancers, one of them De Keersmaeker, lying on the stage. They are serious-looking women with civilian haircuts, wearing loose grey tops and skirts and hideous, brown, utilitarian shoes. Behind them are stacked the chairs without which no 1980s contemporary dance work is complete. For at least 20 minutes, there is no music, just the breathing of the performers as they execute a series of quotidian gestures. Bodies roll from side to side like bolts of cloth, drawing the loose drapery of their costumes with them. Arms are raised, hands touched to hair, rises initiated and abandoned with a soft collapse of limbs. Occasionally, like starlings on a wire, the dancers gaze intently before them. More often, their eyes are half-closed. To begin with you expect some kind of development, but then you realise that this is it. This is as eventful as it's going to get.

At once half-hynotised and hyper-receptive, we move into part two, which seems to be an allegory of industrial process, and of the social and domestic activities imposed on women. As the dancers' hair swings around their heads, their arms reach out and retract like pistons, and their faces take on a frazzled cast. The sequence looks at times like an out-take from an early Soviet propaganda film, but the cheerful, worker-bee ethic is undercut by the visible strain manifested by the performers, and by gestures which appear at once abject and flirtatious: the pensive baring of a shoulder, perhaps, or of the upper curve of a breast.

These are familiar tropes. There's always been an exhibitionistic edge to De Keersmaeker's work, with much fussing with bras and kicking off of knickers, which sits oddly with her unsmiling severity. In fact, she's just messing with your head, challenging you to ascribe emotional meaning to purely mechanical gestures. Before long, as the De May/Vermeersch score pounds out a metallic rhythm, you reach a split-consciousness state in which every movement you see on stage swims between what it is and what it might represent. Now, it's just a movement, a purely physical element in the intricate structure of the dance, now it's an angry statement about the way women's lives are broken on the wheel of bourgeois convention.

Most choreography is a conscious uniting of movement and meaning, but De Keersmaeker succeeds in casting doubt over the whole process, and it's the resulting tension that holds you in your seat. You realise that you can't trust your own reactions; that nothing can be taken at face value. At the same time the Rosas performers, in a kind of triple bluff, are busy assuring you of the authenticity of what you're watching by parading their fatigue, their sweat and all the other byproducts of effort that dancers usually try to conceal. With the realisation that this exhaustion is itself choreographed – the final section of the piece has the dancers, as it were, sitting around and getting their breath back – you sense the final evaporation of the traditional contract between audience and performer. The final transition, perhaps, from modernism to postmodernism.

All of this is a lot easier to admire than to warm to. English audiences are not brilliant at negotiating work from which the humour has been quite so resolutely vacuumed, and there are several exasperated walkouts. But there is much that is bracing in the resolute seriousness of this now historic piece. I look forward to seeing it again in 25 years' time.