“Plain boiled rice I find much tastier than rice covered with a multitude of sauces,” the Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker once said about her ambitious and austere 2017 dance set to Bach’s cello suites. “I find it hard to endure junk at my age.”
The age? 59. The work? “Mitten Wir Im Leben Sind/Bach6Cellosuiten” (“In the Midst of Life/Bach’s Cello Suites”), performed by her company, Rosas, and the cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, at N.Y.U. Skirball on Thursday night and named after the opening words of a Martin Luther chorale: “In the midst of life, we are in death.” A live dance is like that, too, dying a little more with every passing move.
Ms. De Keersmaeker appears intent on using choreography to strip away, to get at the essence of her art. It also seems as though she’s looking back on her years spent both making and performing significant dances.
It’s important to know that she is a presence in this two-hour excavation of Bach’s six glorious cello suites. Yes, there are dancers in this work, but only two stars: Ms. De Keersmaeker and Mr. Queyras, who plays onstage.
For all of the lushness of music, “In the Midst of Life” is bound by structure — not only in the score, but also in the choreography. Even so, it contains a whirlwind of emotions: joyful and sensual, sad and unsettling. There are times when the work can drag on, but the radiant moments win out. Ms. De Keersmaeker’s dance demands patience, and that’s instilled in the audience through delicate rhythm and timing. It’s a gift: Patience is hard to come by.
If Mr. Queyras is the mountain of this piece, then Ms. De Keersmaeker is the wind. With her silver hair swept up in a French twist, she wears a draped, silky dress by An D’Huys with cutout panels to reveal her thighs — one leg flashes more skin than the other — and a generous expanse of her back. On her feet: sneakers.
Mr. Queyras plays his cello while seated on a stool that moves from suite to suite. Ms. De Keersmaeker disappears and reappears throughout, yet there is a determined way that she places herself front and center with a curious mix of self-possession and confrontation: She wants to be looked at, just as we want to look at her.
It’s unlikely that audiences will experience this kind of stripped-down intimacy from Ms. De Keersmaeker in the newly revised “West Side Story” currently in previews on Broadway. (That production, directed by Ivo van Hove and choreographed by her, opens Feb. 20.)
During “In the Midst of Life,” Ms. De Keersmaeker glides in and out of the settings as dancers perform solos for the first four suites. The fifth — somber, with Luc Schaltin’s lighting resembling nightfall — is almost entirely reserved for Mr. Queyras’s unaccompanied cello, while the sixth brings back the entire group. Ms. De Keersmaeker appears briefly before each suite, naming it by holding up a number of fingers then skittering away.
The floor is covered with curves and circles, like etchings left on the ice by skaters practicing compulsory figures. Within these are lines, taped onto the stage between suites — a reference to Ms. De Keersmaeker’s spatial structure. Her movement repeats, but not in a dry way, because of the dual rhythms at play: The vibrations of the music echo in the dancers’ bodies — robust, yet dewy — which swirl across space in spinning, space-gulping jumps or descend, like mounds of fallen silk, to the floor. Walks, embellished with little hiccups of, say, a lingering foot, cut boldly across the stage.
Three of the four solos are by men — Michaël Pomero, Julien Monty and Bostjan Antoncic — whose rugged muscularity makes them seem more like rugby players than dancers. Yet despite their size, they’re plush and capable of softness as they crumple to the floor and rise up. The slight and slender Marie Goudot, possessing a certain toughness, is deceptive as well. Her dancing? Straightforward, strong, blunt.
The best part of each suite is when Ms. De Keersmaeker, her dress rippling to expose a muscular back, suddenly runs — practically a gallop that gives way to a skip — around part of the stage and into the wings. There’s a wild urgency, a defiant sexiness to these moments, which carries a whiff or two of the choreographer Twyla Tharp.
During the luminous final section, the dancers all come together as a group, performing in unison as they traverse the stage. Moments repeat and echo from the patterns to the choreography. This is hardly plain boiled rice — unless you, like Ms. De. Keersmaeker, think that sounds like a good dish. In which case it is. But she is the special sauce.
Mitten Wir Im Leben Sind/Bach6Cellosuiten
Through Feb. 15 at N.Y.U. Skirball, Manhattan; nyuskirball.org.