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Bach's Silence and Emptiness

As part of an ongoing U.S. tour, the Compañía Nacional de Danza brought its production of Bach: Multiplicity. Forms of Silence and Emptiness to the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater last night. As previewed by Jens Laurson earlier this week (for WETA), controversial choreographer Nacho Duato drew his inspiration for the work from the life and music of Johann Sebastian Bach. The source is represented in the performance by the soundtrack of music, replayed from carefully chosen recordings. As experienced at last night's performance, it is one of the most visually and musically gorgeous modern dance pieces to come to the Kennedy Center in years. Duato has announced that he will retire from the CND this summer, so this tour is also the end of an era. If you can find a ticket for tonight's performance, take it.

In an audience discussion after Friday's performance, Duato said that he spent two years closely listening to Bach's music, and it shows. The recorded selections are all beautiful choices -- some more austere, others more viscerally joyous -- and the choreography was clearly thought out in conjunction with it, illuminating the music but also not detracting from it. Some of the gestures are derived from musical ones: the playing of the keyboard or other instruments (including the dance pictured here, in which Bach plays another dancer like a cello to the sound of one of the cello suites), jiggles or shakes inspired by embellishments, closely timed repetitions corresponding to polyphonic imitation. Rarely has the rhythmic vivacity of Baroque music been so adroitly captured in visual terms as in the Aeolus movement, set to the opening movement of the cantata Der zufriedengestellte Aolous, with the full cast arranged like the players of a chamber orchestra, pulsating to Bach's direction. Nor has a complex formal structure like the ten interwoven lines (three violins, three violas, three cellos, plus continuo) of the third Brandenburg concerto been elucidated so clearly as in the coordinated movements of the ten dancers of the Brandenburgo movement.

Duato conceived the ballet, a diptych of two related but often contrasting choreographies, for the city of Weimar in 1999, when it was the European Capital of Culture. Duato said afterward that city officials had first suggested the life and work of Goethe as a topic, which did not strike him as quite working with dance, and he quickly settled on Bach, who lived and worked in Weimar from 1708 to 1717. Sets by Jaffar Chalabi, mostly a stark wall of scaffolding that ascends into nothingness, evoke the curvilinear folds of Baroque architecture, and playful costumes (by Duato and Ismael Aznar), over basic black underclothes, recall 18th-century dress and even long priestly cassocks in one unforgettable number.

Other Articles:

Lisa Traiger, Spain's national dance company performs an homage to Bach at Kennedy Center (Washington Post, May 14)

Laura Bleiberg, Compania Nacional de Danza at the Orange County Performing Arts Center (Los Angeles Times, May 7)

Allan Ulrich, Compañía Nacional de Danza (San Francisco Chronicle, May 1)
The work's subject, in a sense, is the struggle between silence and music, or death and life. A bewigged central dancer, Thomas Klein as Bach, opens the work with Duato, who seemed to represent the sound of Bach's music, to the accompaniment of the Aria of the Goldberg Variations. Bach propels and turns the other dancers incarnating his music, refining and altering each performance and, seemingly through it, the final shape of each musical piece. It is a beautiful metaphor for composition, the musical work as a living thing, at times submissive, at others unpredictable and with its own mind. The first half (Multiplicity) makes reference to the composer's happy family life in Weimar, a position he took shortly after his first marriage, to Maria Barbara Bach, and the birth of the first of many children, including two of his most musically successful sons, W. F. Bach and C. P. E. Bach. In the second (Forms of Silence and Emptiness), a serpentine female dancer (Inês Pereira) returns first to silence Bach and then, after a reprise of the Goldberg Aria dance, leads the figure of music into silence.

This performance will be repeated only once more, this evening (May 15, 8 pm) in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. The troupe then travels for two more performances, a selection of new works presented at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, before returning to Spain.

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