Review: The MP4 Quartet and Isabella Soupart’s “Steve Reich Project.”

Isabella Soupart's "Steve Reich Project." Photo by Maria Falconer.

Belgian choreographer, director and visual artist Isabella Soupart, in her ongoing “reflection on the question of contemporary creation,” teamed up with The MP4 Quartet to create Steve Reich Project. The hour-long performance is built on three of minimalist American composer Steve Reich’s most lauded pieces: Pendulum Music, Different Trains and WTC 9/11.

The show opens with Pendulum Music. The quartet’s musicians appear with their music stands lined up in a vertical row stage right. They make simple shifts in their positioning throughout, making evident that Soupart didn’t want the musicians to simply accompany the action taking place on stage, but rather to take part in it.

At center stage we find dancer Shantala Pèpe gripping a microphone suspended by a long cord dangling from the ceiling. As she wraps the cord around her arm, she swings her body, taking the musical work’s title to an entirely literal place, although the motivation behind this is not at all clear. 

Isabella Soupart's "Steve Reich Project." Photo by Maria Falconer.
Isabella Soupart’s “Steve Reich Project.” Photo by Maria Falconer.

By the second piece of music, Different Trains, Pèpe has loosened herself from microphone’s noose, but it continues to swing across the stage like a wandering pendulum as she dances abstractly around it. Throughout, we listen to fragments of interviews regarding trains, with references first to trains that cross the United States, but slowly transitioning to descriptions of trains transporting people during WWII.

The musical soundscape created by Reich is meant to reference his childhood as a Jewish American in the 1930’s and 40’s, but again the action taking place on stage does little to capture Reich’s intent. The crisscrossing of musicians depicts the visual aspects of trains moving along straight tracks, but Pèpe’s aimless movement doesn’t make much of an impact or statement.

As Different Trains transitions into WTC 9/11, a piece written to commemorate the September 11 attacks, a video by Kurt d’Haeseleer, the artistic director of Werktank, is projected onto the back wall. The slow-motion, pixelated, looping video shows people on what looks like a beach running after one another and falling in the sand. At points it looks as though they are having a fun, playful time and at others as though they are trampling one another. Certainly, the latter would seem to reference terrified people escaping the 9/11 attack sites or the shockwaves of a blast pushing people to their knees, but then why the brightly lit sands and water?

Isabella Soupart's "Steve Reich Project." Photo by Danny Willems.
Isabella Soupart’s “Steve Reich Project.” Photo by Danny Willems.

Pèpe drops to the floor rolling from side to side, flopping over and around. Once on her feet again, she begins to spin, eventually whirling like a dervish, a single moment of smoothness and elegance. She’s a strong dancer, but the choreography is confusing and disjointed, especially when Pèpe dedicates herself to simply moving the musician’s stands around the stage as they follow blindly behind her.

This piece, to its detriment, tries aggressively to be ultra-contemporary by jumping from literalism to complete abstraction. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, as long as there is some unifying factor, but as is, the combination keeps the audience from engaging due to what come off as underdeveloped themes. One can see there is a certain level of experimentation happening here, but it’s not exiting, making Steve Reich Project a piece that Soupart should take back to the drawing board for reworking.

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