The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988: an aria, thirty variations on the basic theme of the aria, and finally a da capo. In the variations, Bach makes frequent references to the existing musical forms of his day, making the whole thing something of a musical encyclopaedia. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s solo with live music on The Goldberg Variations is also partly a lexicon, but of her own career in choreography. She quotes regularly from earlier works and updates them with a sixty-year-old body that affirms its own transience and the finite nature of an artistic career. This is done joyously and meticulously, with a discipline in the dancing that at times lends the body such sovereignty that, for a moment, it appears to end up outside time. This is the crux of the performance: past and present cross paths within an autonomously moving body that steadfastly embraces an uncertain future, without melancholy or sentimentality.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
A piano to the left, next to it on the floor, a pile of crumpled golden foil; on the right-hand wall of the stage is a large frame, filled with equally crumpled silver foil. The first part of the performance takes place in near darkness, before a rectangular plane of light moves slowly from right to left, back to front.
The performance begins without music. Dressed in a transparent black dress – later, she wears a light-brown woollen trouser suit, and in the final section an orange blouse over silver-coloured shorts – De Keersmaeker makes a series of movements, which are distinct from each other in such a way that makes the whole seem incoherent. Something like: first open a door, then pick up a piece of paper, turn around sharply and reach for your mobile phone on the table. In everyday life, the functionality of the movements makes the sequence logical. In the absence of that context, you get a juxtaposition of actions. ‘Movements seem out of joint’, thus continuously referring back to the medium of the dancing body: their origin ensures a minimal, if elusive, unity.
A little later, music is heard: the pianist plays the aria. The tones provide a conjunction of the disjunctive movements and meld them together into a stylised phrase. It is a hallmark of De Keersmaeker's choreography: together with the rhythmic breathing, the music functions as a connecting syntax for the self-contained actions. Movement becomes dance through the musicalisation of the body.
Interpreting a work of art is ultimately a futile effort: you can only respond to it with another work of art, Ludwig Wittgenstein once remarked. This could be De Keersmaeker’s motto. After all, the music often leads the dance in her work. The structure of the choreography reflects, for instance, that of the music, connecting each instrument with a specific performer. Or music and dance enter into dialogue according to the principle of unison or counterpoint. However, this reflective play does not structure The Goldberg Variations.
De Keersmaeker’s choreographies are never a commentary on the music used, let alone an illustration of it. The usually close relationship between choreographic écriture and musical score is one of reading and understanding – of gaining a physical grip on the sounds, of making the relationship between them explicit... and also one of physically understanding and sensing the music.
All of this plays a part in the way the music is handled in The Goldberg Variations. But the physical understanding of the music performed live, its inclusion within the body, dominates more direct forms of isomorphism between choreography and score. This freer relationship aggrandizes the truth value of an earlier statement by De Keersmaeker: dancing Bach is embodying an abstraction.
The choreography of The Goldberg Variations is based on improvisations. This is barely noticeable in the performance. In comparison with earlier solos, the minimal theatricality and the near absence of moments in which De Keersmaeker seems unsure of how to continue (as if waiting for an idea) are particularly striking. She dances with precision, and with a remarkable commitment to the dance score. That is particularly apparent from the visible concentration, as well as in the rare humorous moments when she seems to loosen up. The body is focused on executing the choreography: it performs, in all senses of the word. In The Goldberg Variations, the choreography, just like the music, has ‘descended’ into the body.
The unique signature of this solo performance has undoubtedly a lot to do with the presence of an external eye. Diane Madden was De Keersmaeker’s regular artistic partner during the creative process. As a member of the Trisha Brown Dance Company, she created roles within various Brown choreographies, was the choreographer’s personal assistant for a time, and worked as rehearsal director. During the creation of The Goldberg Variations, Madden functioned as the actual choreographer’s double: she watched and commented.
The performance reuses familiar basic figures from De Keersmaeker’s choreographic work. Spiral, circle, the golden ratio: they co-structure the viewing and double the space. Within the scenic space, each movement recreates a danced, and therefore continuously fading, space, according to a plan that often appears very strict. Something like: choreography is 'an-architecture' embodied, the designing of an unstable, permanently changing virtual space, in which the regular practice of architecture finds its utopian, ‘anarchic’ vanishing point.
The body of a dancer is marked by countless traces: it is a living archive. Present movements actualise a complex history, intrinsically connected to a layered physical memory that the dancer can never quite fathom, but only practise selectively. In De Keersmaeker’s body, the choreographer’s memory invariably encounters the dancer’s traces of memory. In The Goldberg Variations, the two memories blend into an artistic memento mori.
Halfway through the performance, there is a brief interlude that corresponds directly to the musical score: it comes before the sixteenth variation, a French overture that splits the thirty variations in two. In the first section, in particular, De Keersmaeker recycles iconic movements from Fase, Rosas danst Rosas, Bartok/Mikrokosmos, etc. Skipping, swinging an arm in front of the body in short, sharp movements with a clenched fist, and gyrating while fiddling with clothing, a shoulder exposed: it’s all there. To anyone remotely familiar with the Rosas oeuvre, the physical memory consulted by De Keersmaeker activates their own visual memory. The Goldberg Variations makes the viewer of a certain age aware that they have grown old together with the artist.
The quoted movement vocabulary evokes an absent choreographic context of one’s own imagination. This also applies to previously seen gestures, such as the confident consideration or casual inspection of the audience or acting as if a piece of fluff is blown from an outstretched palm. Like the recollections inside a human memory, these traces of an artistic past criss-cross each other, free of their actual temporal embedding within a lifetime or career. The Goldberg Variations does indeed show the dancer’s body as a disorderly archive, a depot in which time is condensed into a series of randomly arranged artefacts. The past is only quotable in this state: freed of the original historical context, it can be reinscribed within a new constellation. This kind of temporal telescope effect is at odds with a repertoire practice that aims to be faithful to the work.
The Goldberg Variations combines old and new material: reuse goes hand-in-hand with creation. This indicates a consistent ecological stance. No discourse on sustainable art can be considered credible if it does not break with the modernist imperative of innovation and the accompanying belief that only the logic of the artistic caesura can produce interesting work. Besides being an explicit flashback, The Goldberg Variations is an implicit call for an artistic practice that creates space for the art of recycling. This explains, for example, the nod to Saturday Night Fever (which may also revive memories of past disco dance moves).
Quite a lot of new material reuses everyday movements such as walking, standing still, lying, etc. We are familiar with this appropriation of ‘the prosaic body’ from Rosas choreographies as well. It occurs more emphatically here, as the movements are slightly extended in time. As such, they mark multiple breaks within the performance, or, more accurately, folds in the choreography, temporary stops in which the body changes into a pure potential of possibilities.
Other movements seem at first to say, ‘I dance – free’. In combination with the quotations from a previous vocabulary, this suggests again an ethical adage dialectically linking past and present: ‘you don’t become free by denying your past, but by affirming it.’
One who associates music with a message is guilty of Hineininterpretierung or projection. Music is expressive but says nothing in particular. It touches us, and is highly performative, but the effect that it elicits cannot be named. It is too indeterminate – as if music, as Nietzsche claimed, addresses the general human capacity for feeling. This is all the more relevant in the case of the highly mathematically structured music of Bach.
Music is not situated in the register of the unspeakable, but that of the unnameable, contends Vladimir Jankélévitch: ‘La musique est le régime ambigu de l’espressivo qui n’exprime rien’. (‘Music is the ambiguous regime of the espressivo that expresses nothing’) Earlier, he states: ‘La musique ne signifie rien, mais l’homme qui chante est le lieu de rencontre des significations.’ (‘Music signifies nothing, but the man who sings is the meeting place of significations.’). Replace ‘music’ with ‘dance’ and ‘the man who signs’ with ‘the dancing body’, and the sentence might serve as a motto for The Goldberg Variations.
The Goldberg Variations actually exists in two versions, as Pavel Kolesnikov and Alain Franco – with whom De Keersmaeker has previously worked – take turns at the piano for each performance. You can hear that the young Kolesnikov is a concert pianist who plays a lot of the Romantic repertoire. He interprets and personalises: as well as virtuosity, he plays with a personal touch. His pianissimo, which tends towards the lyrical, mitigates Bach’s strict formalism and lends the music an inward, subjective dimension. In contrast, Franco plays the notes very assertively, without trying to suggest a subtext. Combined with a casualness that indicates a great familiarity with the score, this musical objectivism results in a version that might seem boisterous. It’s something of an exaggeration, but the one says, ‘I play Bach’ (Kolesnikov), while the other says, ‘this is Bach!’ (Franco).
The difference in approach has a direct impact on how the dance appears. Kolesnikov places a soft wrapping around the dance, in a friendly manner. He plays around it: without ever being ornamental or decorative, the tones form part of the geometric space in which De Keersmaeker demarcates her own space through dance. At the same time, Kolesnikov’s personal touch repeatedly creates an inward musical movement. Sometimes, this intensifies the tonality of the dance, for example when De Keersmaeker lies down or stands still. In yet other moments, the somewhat self-absorbed piano playing contrasts with the movements departing the body, which occupy, cut through, or otherwise mark out the space.
Franco does not accompany the dance but follows the score (which he plays entirely ‘by heart’). As such, the music is in part next to the dance. This juxtaposition does not only confirm the autonomy of the two artistic media. Franco and De Keersmaeker each go their own way, but come together again regularly in a remarkable pas de deux: none of their encounters seem to have been planned, every crossing of music and dance feels contingent. At times, Franco’s objectivism goes that much crescendo that the music becomes indifferent to its environment. Both the choreography and its embodiment gain thus a great deal of sovereignty, while Kolesnikov’s more personal approach focuses the eye on the danced movements, and their potential subjective power of expression.
The Goldberg Variations shows a life that is interwoven with dance: one sees an artistic biography that writes itself live, here and now. In contrast to previous solos, there is only rarely a semblance of an ‘I’ as a more or less performed character: the author dominates throughout the performance. This is not the artist as a concrete individual with her own identity, but the subject that is created by an incoming choreographic idea or a just emerging movement.
Every thought or movement needs a living body to enable it to exist and be experienced. Life is given form in this way. The Goldberg Variations treats art (music, dance) as a form of life: ‘La forme-de-vie est le point où travailler à une oeuvre et travailler sur soi coincident parfaitement’ (‘The form-of-life is the point in which working on an oeuvre and working on oneself coincide perfectly’) (Giorgio Agamben).
Original publication in Etcetera on 09.07.2020