Bach by the Geneva Ballet
Bach by the Geneva BalletWhen the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève announced it was offering an hour-long ballet to selected preludes and fugues from Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier," it was easy to imagine what the Swiss company's production might look like: the stage would be bare, costumes would be spare and each contrapuntal musical phrase would be solemnly yoked to a corresponding choreographic phrase.
Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève, "Préludes et Fugues"
Joyce Theatre, 175 Eighth Avenue at 19th Street, Chelsea
February 28-Marc h 4, 2012; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., (212) 242-0800, www.joyce.org, $10-$49
Reviewed by Jack Anderson, March 1, 2012
That's what abstract ballets to Bach tend to look like. And that's what Emanuel Gat's "Préludes et Fugues" did look like, right?
Wrong! Very wrong.
Yes, the stage stayed bare and costumes were spare in this ballet for twenty dancers. But sounds and steps were often matched so oddly as to suggest that they were going their own separate ways while filling the same theatrical time and space. If Gat's effects were initially perplexing, a willingness to listen and look without clinging to preconceived ideas of how ballets and their scores should be joined together made "Préludes et Fugues" fascinating and, ultimately, touching.
As an overture, a Bach prelude was played, softly, with the curtain down, as if from a great distance. In fact, much of the accompaniment, taken from Glenn Gould's recording of the complete score, sounded far away. Since the Joyce's amplification system can frequently make recorded music seem clattery, I began to suspect that the sonic restraint was deliberate. Silence soon prevailed and dancers entered, scooping the air and flinging themselves to the ground.
Here, and elsewhere throughout the ballet, Gat liked to gather people together into clusters, only to send them scattering. People sometimes performed while other people watched, and the watchers would unexpectedly replace the previous dancers in the middle of a prelude or a fugue.
It was occasionally difficult to tell if dancers paired together were colleagues or contenders. In one duet, dancers, though paired, appeared be trying to elude each other. Many times, when a musical piece ended, the dancers simply continued in silence, moving on into the next prelude or fugue without a break. Eventually, massed dancers in an ensemble seemed to suggest that the ballet's conclusion was imminent, big groups often being heralds of finales. The end was indeed near, but when it did come only one pensive woman was left on stage, tentatively touching her body and the air around her.
Gat sometimes made music and movement so disjunct that exasperated spectators might wonder why he bothered to use Bach at all, rather than some other composer. He might conceivably reply that these kinds of movements, and none other, were the ones that Bach's sounds led him to create. He was not out to produce a music visualization, but a personal vision, a choreographic landscape stretched across Bach's musical landscape that complemented it, but in an idiosyncratic way. What initially appeared arbitrary looked more and more necessary. Movements in silence took on as much importance as movements to sounds. The softness of the amplification, the suggestion of music emerging from and returning to somewhere far distant, also became appropriate. So did Gat's specific musical choices.
From the 48 pieces that comprise the "Well-Tempered Clavier," Gat selected fifteen, the first two of them in major keys, while all the rest were in minor keys. It is certainly a monstrous oversimplification to say, as children's piano teachers have occasionally been wont to do, that "major keys mean happy music, minor keys mean sad music," yet minor keys are often associated with sadness in our musical tradition, and Gat's ballet is suffused with melancholy.
Music that might have come from far-away, dance phrases that stopped while the music continued or continued to no music, music in predominantly minor keys, all this heightened the ballet's atmosphere. Without choreographic ranting or wailing, "Préludes et Fugues" called attention to impermanence and to the transience of all existence,
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