“A triumph of mind over matter”. With these resounding words, the renowned Bach biographer Philipp Spitta described the music for string soloists composed by Johann Sebastian Bach between 1717 and 1723. The work in question not only includes six suites composed for the cello, but also several sonatas and partitas meant for a violin. In all the six suites, Bach consistently demonstrates his thorough knowledge of the technical possibilities of the cello as an instrument, and his ability to transmit the polyphonic and harmonic abundance of his musical language on an instrument that is usually cast as exclusively ‘monophonic’. Chords or polyphonic counterpoints are manoeuvres which are indeed quite difficult to play on a cello. Within the limitations Bach imposed on himself, however, the composer managed to write music that sounds as rich and unburdened as his great works written for piano or choir. It is precisely this aspect that has turned the cello suites into such a milestone in Western music.
As a choreographer and dancer, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker is fascinated with Bach’s capacity to create monumental cycles, starting from the most austere of means. Unsurprisingly, De Keersmaeker’s work exerts a similar search for ‘substance’ and ‘essence’. In interviews, she invariably describes choreography as “the organisation of movement in time and space on a horizontal and a vertical axis”. The horizontal axis is the social one, on which human beings approach or avoid each other. The vertical axis is spiritual, running between heaven and earth, mind and matter. Bach's music governs not only the movement of time, but also the use of space in De Keersmaeker’s choreography of the six cello suites. On stage one finds a colourful geometric floor plan, forming a set of linked pentagrams, circles and spirals, which seem to run on endlessly. Quintessential to this spatial organisation of the choreography, above all, was the decision to draw cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras into the same space as the dancers. As a cellist, Queyras does not stand face to face with the audience as is traditionally expected of him in a concert hall. Rather, he occupies a different location on the stage at the start of each of the six suites. As the performance evolves, this opens the spiral on the floor plan resulting in pentagrams that increase in size. This allows for a different perspective on both the cellist's and the dancers' physical presence in every suite. Out of the majestic structure of Bach's six-part cycle, there arises the architectonic framework of the choreography.
No one is more apt at ‘visualising’ music than Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. During the rehearsal process, together with Jean-Guihen Queyras and her dancers, she analysed the phrases and harmonic structure on which the architecture and rhetoric of the cello suites are based. Through the main melodic voice of the cello one can detect an inaudible bassline which is the driving motor of the piece’s harmonic evolution. De Keersmaeker tries to graft the movements of the dancers onto the harmonic structure of Bach’s piece. Modulations, or changes from a major to a minor scale, affect the development of the vertical axis, which runs parallel to the opening spiral of the human spinal column.
On a more formal level, the six cello suites tend to resemble Bach's so-called 'English Suites', written for the harpsichord. Each of the six suites is made up of six parts. The traditional dances of the Baroque suite – allemandes, courantes, sarabandes and gigues – are all preceded by an extensive prelude. Between the sarabandes and the gigues, Bach adds an increasing number of so-called 'gallantries': minuets, bourrées and gavottes. Despite their similar composition, each of the suites possesses its own character and distinguishes itself from the others. It is for this very reason that Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker decided to link each of the first four suites to the personality of one of her four dancers: the first suite features Michaël Pomero, the second Julien Monty, the third Marie Goudot, and the fourth Boštjan Antončič.
In the preludes of these suites, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker presents the individual character of every dancer, which all start with the opening spiral movement of the spinal column. The choreographic material of every dancer is linked to the character, the specific colour and the musical key of every suite. Every dancer starts from the same position vis-a-vis Jean-Guihen Queyras, who takes a different position on the opening spiral of the geometric floor plan in every suite. During the cycle itself, a certain dramaturgic strategy steadily reveals itself. Whereas, in the prelude of the first suite, Michaël Pomero draws large arcs across the geometric floor plan while simultaneously keeping a certain rhythmic distance from the music, the choreography for Boštjan Antončič at the beginning of the fourth suite simply consists of short rhythmic loops that punctuate the music in a way that links every note to a movement or step of the dancer – a principle that De Keersmaeker refers to as 'one note, one step'. As the performance evolves, the apparent effect of the manoeuvre is a deeper engagement with the music for the audience.
The decision to tie each of the first four suites to a different dancer leaves us with a choreography that, at first sight, appears mainly monophonic, much like Bach’s music itself. As the piece progresses, however Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker very cautiously infuses a polyphonic element into the choreography as well. In the allemandes that follow up on the preludes, De Keersmaeker joins her dancers and dances exactly the same choreographic phrases as they do. The dancers all provide answers in their own way. New combinations are tested, all set against De Keersmaeker’s consistently identical phrase. “The result is a flowing counterpoint, in which the dancers copy the material of my phrase with a slight twist”, she explains. The result is an almost perfect continuum between the parts danced in unison and parts danced in counterpoint.
As with the other dances in the suites, De Keersmaeker and her dancers deploy contemporary choreographic material in conjunction with classical dance styles, which underpinned Bach's original music. In the courantes, for example, 'running' is the starting point of the choreography. The name of this quick-paced dance originated in the French word courir, signifying ‘to run’. In the piece, dancers indeed seem, quite literally, to ‘run’ the music on the circles of the geometrical floor plan – clockwise in the A parts, counter-clockwise in the B parts; forward in the passages in the major key, backwards in the passages in the minor key.
The slow tempo of the solemn sarabandes, in turn, invites more sculptural poses. The dancers return to the heart of the spatial floor plan – the heart of the opening spiral connected to a shifting pentagram. Just as in the preludes, the choreography begins from the vertical axis, grafted onto the harmonic structure of the music.
In the minuets, bourrées or gavottes, which make up the fifth movement of the suites, the dance follows a diagonal line, forming a tangent with the unfolding spiral laid out on the floor plan. The underlying principle of these passages – which Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker has often referred to as 'my walking is my dancing' – and what trajectory the dancers are walking on, is the underlying bassline, the generally inaudible musical skeleton of the cello suites. The circular floor plan also figures in the gigues, where the choreography functions as an answer to the brilliant, virtuoso character of these quick-paced closing dances.
It is typical for the systematic nature of Bach musical mind that the six suites were planned as a cycle. This fact can be witnessed, for example, in the penultimate parts are minuets in the first two suites, bourrées in the third and fourth suites and gavottes in the final two suites. While Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker firstly has one dancer dance the minuets, the bourrées are danced by two and three dancers respectively, and the gavotte by five.
From the fifth suite on, Bach undertakes a change of course. The extensive prelude, comprising a total of two parts, refers to the so-called French overture, in which a long-drawn, stately introduction precedes a fugue. This seems to start a new chapter in the six-part cycle. The fact that Bach wrote a fugue – a uniquely polyphonic form – for an essentially monophonic instrument demonstrates the unique feat of Bach’s piece. The entire suite in D minor is steeped in a very unusual sonority, since Bach prescribed the A string to be retuned into a G. This allowed him to generate harmonies and resonances that differed from those with the usual tuning. The melancholic sarabande not only forms the dark heart of the fifth suite but also of the entire cycle of the six suites. To Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker – in whose work mathematical proportions has always played a prominent role – it remains of utter import for this sarabande to be played immediately after the golden ratio of the approximately two-hour-long cycle. At this point, the choreography is characterised by darkness, emptiness and absence.
In contrast, the sixth suite in D major has a more exuberant feel to it, clearly intended by Bach as the crowning of the entire cycle. Although still building on models on which the other suites were based, Bach now significantly steps up the expressiveness and the technical difficulty of the music. The sixth suite now requires a cello equipped with a fifth string, tuned as a high E. From the start, the suite shares the sounds of a lively party. The F sharp, the A and the D octave jump out from four dancing Ds like sparks from a fire. Keeping in with symbolism of the rising tide, the sixth suite feels like a resurrection after the dark 'De Profundis' of the fifth suite. Bach's triumph of ‘mind’ over ‘matter’ now appears as nothing less than a triumph of ‘life’ over ‘death’. With Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker herself included, the sixth suite turns into a collective dance in which all six performers – five dancers and one cellist – are on stage together. “To me, the genius of Bach lies in the fact that he wasn't only a great musician, but also an architect, a painter and a poet”, she says. “In a cycle like that of the six cello suites there is a discernible narrative underlying the whole piece, a story of existential experience and human feeling. It is the history of a condition humaine everyone can identify with.”