A bare stage, a cellist, the six Bach Cello Suites; enough, one would think in itself. Not so for Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker, choreographer and performer, who has created movement for herself and four other dancers around Jean-Guihen Queyras and his instrument. Queyras is a truly exceptional performer, whose interpretation of Bach’s wondrous compositions flows with startling creativity and vibrant musicianship. His cello becomes the epicentre of a universe of sound and emotion, his virtuosity bringing a multiplicity of colours and nuances – there is no greater moment in this performance than in the fifth Suite when all lights dim to leave Queyras playing in a spotlight, the spare notes sounding out in a universe of silence and darkness; a moment of genuinely cosmic scale. For Queyras, it is a feat of endurance, all six Suites performed from memory with only brief pauses between, two hours of exceptional, distilled musicianship.
And so to the dancing. De Keersmaeker is nothing if not a cerebral choreographer, and her analysis of Bach’s music, her understanding of its structures, both underlying and overt, are impressive. Her approach verges on the geometric, something emphasised by the laying of tangents and vectors in coloured tape before each suite on the stage surface, already marked with circles and arcs, so that, by the end of performance, the surface resembles a page of geometric analysis or a school gym floor, depending on the viewer. Following in the broadest terms the dance forms of Bach’s compositions (running for the courantes, fluidity in the allemandes, solemnity for the sarabandes and bristling energy for the gigues), De Keersmaeker is undeniably intelligent in her gradual deconstruction of the forms, the first four suites following the same patterns of solo dancer joined for one section by the choreographer, only for the end of the fourth and then the whole of the fifth to fracture in form and then for the sixth to bring all performers together in a dancing tutti. Serious reservations remain about any dancing to silence which seems to make a mockery of the relationship with and motivation of Bach’s music.
The dancers are all excellent, unblinking in their execution of De Keersmaecker’s movement, a patchwork of walking and gesturing, leaping, spinning, with extensive use of the floor, the dancers’ bodies exploring the planes of the three dimensions, in an attempt, no doubt, to enter the fourth. Michaël Pomero and Marie Goudot are perhaps the most engaging, possessors of a movement quality and stage personality which catch the eye and who invest themselves into their performance, but most disappointing is De Keersmaeker herself who appears in each of the six Suites. She is a dour presence and a bland performer, what she does coming across as a chore more than anything else. Unsmiling, unengaging, ungiving, the choreographer herself is the weakest element of this evening, and with the expression of an unimpressed school matron she may be a dominant presence among her dancers, but is unrewarding to watch.
Expertly lit, casually costumed, this work contains much thought and effort, but the nagging question remains as to its validity. De Keersmaeker’s thoughts and choreography clearly bring another dimension to Queyras’s approach to this music, but it is, ultimately, a one-way street: the cellist’s performance of Bach’s suites has undoubtedly been enriched through his work with others in another artistic field, but ultimately, the movement which swirls around him can only remain peripheral to what emanates from his instrument. Mitten wir im Leben / Bach6Cellosuiten may well be part of a creative process but it is not the end-product in itself.