Jerome Robbins’ Goldberg Variations is a snoozer of interminable prettiness. Jiří Kylián’s Gods and Dogs is a visual and acoustic treat; as spectacular as modern ballet gets.
Dance is as old as rhythm, and rhythm is older than man. It started when a particularly musical chimp first went to work on a hollow tree trunk and churned out trendy beats in accompaniment to his (pri-)mates’ elastic gyrations and approving hoots. That’s not literally what Arcadi, Robert, Boesche, and Buttress claim in PRIMATES, 39(4), October 1998, but the gist is about right. Soon the ground rules were established: excitement = fast. Solemnity = slow. The steps have since changed, but the essence remains the same.
During the early Renaissance dance went from unregulated, convulsive free-for-all into an art-form. Eventually distinct rhythmic patterns and rhythms found their way into music that was not intended to be danced to. Via the French Keyboard Suite, the principal form of stylized dance in baroque music, German composers adapted dance movements in the French and Italian style. What started with Johann Jakob Froberger cumulated in Bach and his Suites and Partitas.
If dance, turned into abstraction, became music through Bach and his colleagues, the process is now working in reverse: the music of Bach is becoming the impetus for modern dance. The music that was once formed by motion, now gives motion. The earliest dance/ballet to the music of Bach I could find preserved on film—thanks be to YouTube!—is Doris Humphrey’s 1928 Air for the G String [sic]. With Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco (1941), set to the Concerto in d-minor for Two Violins, BWV 1043, the Bach-dancing renaissance really got under way. Countless others have followed: The all-male drag group Les Ballet Trockadero with the costume-laden spoof Go for Barocco. William Forsythe’s meta-ballet Artifact—half speech-theater, half Kraftwerk aesthetic. Rodrigo Pederneiras and his Grupo Corpo created Bach, a mix of Las Fura del baus, National Aerobics Championship video, and Wendy Carlos. Nacho Duato’ s 1999 Multiplicity / Forms of Silence and Emptiness is perhaps the epitome of the genre: pure genius and heart-wrenching entertainment. (Video from the Bavarian State Ballet here.)
The Goldberg Variations alone have attracted dozens of choreographers: Marie Chouinard with her darkly mechanical-sexual Body Remix – Goldberg Variations. Susan Jaffe’s classical duet Royenne. Eponymous improvised solo and duo efforts by Mark Haim, Steve Paxton, and a very lyrical choreography by Gregory Dawson. Plots are either absent or superimposed; it is as if the element of abstraction of the music carried over the choreographies. The same is true for the most famous ‘Goldberg Variations Ballet’, Jerome Robbins’ which premiered with the New York City Ballet in 1971. Now the Bavarian State Ballet has taken up Robbins’ Goldberg Variations and coupled them with Jiří Kylián’s Gods and Dogs.
For half the opening Aria, performed by pianist Elena Mednik in the raised orchestra pit, the black curtain is down. When it rises on a clean and wide, off-white stage – empty but for two elaborately costumed dancers, the visual effect elicits “Aaaah’s” from the capacity crowd. Martina Balabanova and Christian Assis present stylized formal dance of courtly France, further stylized into neo-classical ballet steps – somehow reminiscent of figure skating. What follows are variations of dancers, groups and couples, wearing simplest costumes in a colorful array of pastels and tans. The costumes, very slowly, become progressively more elaborate and opulent, until 80 very long minutes later, the Quodlibet’s penultimate number is a ring-a-ring-o' roses in full regalia. Very, very pretty, indeed.
Around the 1970s, the idea that Bach’s Goldberg Variations were meant as a cure for insomnia was still popular: Perhaps Robbins’ work tries to pick up on that. Apart from a few notable moments – a hint of silent movie, a burst of energy amid complacency, folk-dance episodes – there is very little going on, accompanied by a drab, but cruelly repeat-observing performance that made me wish more than once that the music came from a CD, instead. (Perhaps Evgeni Koroliov’s recording on Hänssler, which also observes the repeats but establishes irresistible forward momentum in the variations.) With so much stately harmless hopping about, and figures that looked like a belabored circus act of contortionists, it’s no surprise that Robbins’ work has a strong somniferous effect. It’s too long by half, if not three quarters. Overheard from an elderly couple just behind me: “Very nice, and such adorable costumes. But the music was so awfully monotonous… all that soporific tinkling.” Unfortunately they weren’t Bach-ignorant, they were right on the money.
With some trepidation I made it back for Gods and Dogs, a modern work that goes to Ludwig van Beethoven – namely String Quartet op.18 / 1 – for its musical inspiration. The effect after sitting through Goldberg Variations is much that of receiving a reward: Unspeakable beauty by way of an aesthetic that is aggressive, abrupt, abstract, and anguished. Cinematic lighting, elastic bodies with ghastly-robotic, smooth and spellbinding movements, an endlessly fascinating back curtain of metal chains, strong shadows, and a continuous, however nonfigurative, narrative all captivate the audience. Dirk Haubrich bends Beethoven’s first string quartet into shape, projecting and modifying dark industrial sounds into it that would have you grip your armrests, if the newly upholstered seats of the National Theater had any. Then, suddenly, unexpected and brilliantly, the work ends within minutes of its climax, a quality impossible to overrate.
The only overt clue as to the title of the work was a projected slow-motion wolf that runs ominously toward the viewer. Elsewhere the ballet looks less like “Gods” than advanced Capoeira. True to its name in one other way: It is divine!