What does music look like? That’s the question asked by Benjamin Millepied’s Bach Studies, which opened this year’s Le French May. Two performances were given by the celebrity choreographer’s Los Angeles Dance Project (LADP) at Hong Kong Cultural Centre’s Grand Theatre earlier in May.
The word “studies” is not incidental. Two years in development, Millepied’s scholarly piece is a physical representation of sound that aims to trace the order and flow of Bach’s score in shape and movement.
Dance is inherently a reaction to music, which conventionally forms the rhythmic bed and emotional spark beneath a choreographer’s telling of a new story. But with Bach Studies — subtitled “I Fall, I Flow, I Melt” — Millepied demands that his dancers seep into the sound, playing a subservient role that is less an accompaniment or interpretation of the music and more a physicalization of its internal architecture. Like the bare, wingless stage and sharp, simple spotlights, everything assembled is present only to serve the harshly amplified blare of this 300-year-old score.
It’s the kind of principled artistic statement available to a director who had the resources to found his own company (LADP was set up in 2011), the resolve to step away from the Paris Opera Ballet after just two seasons as director of dance (in 2016), and the good luck to have choreographed and starred in a successful Hollywood movie (2010’s Black Swan, alongside Natalie Portman, whom he married two years later).
Choreographer Benjamin Millepied’s Bach Studies expresses sound through movement. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
Imbued with formal rigor and mathematical precision, Bach’s tightly ordered oeuvre is ideally suited to the project – indeed one cannot imagine the “studies” concept working with any other equally canonized composer. At the work’s centerpiece is an almost half-hour suite set to the celebrated solo string workout Partita for Violin No. 2. The first three period dance numbers – allemande, courante and gigue – serve as engaging scene-setting solo showcases, but it’s the 17-minute ciaccona that ignites the imagination. Here Bach’s cascading repetitions and variations are manifested by nine moving bodies, rippling outwards in contrapuntal circles, methodically probing ever farther from the melodic pulse.
But the form finds its cathartic antithesis, for it turns out Bach is only two-thirds of the story. A lengthy sister segment is jarringly set to works by contemporary composer and frequent LADP collaborator David Lang, best known as co-founder of the scene-shifting modernist collective Bang on a Can.
While the soundtrack remains a plaintive, solo violin, both the audio approach and its physical representation is inverted. Three pieces from Lang’s 2014 album Mystery Sonatas offer a bedrock of icy, sleep-deprived, rhythm-free warbles, which the dancers ignore in favor of freewheeling emotive expression. Much of the physical phrasing was created without a soundtrack at all. Instead the dancers were set “movement generation” tasks, including contorting their bodies into the shapes of set sentences.
These winsome solos, passionate duets and tense trios were almost disappointingly the evening’s most invigorating moments. Such a willing rebuttal of the original brief is no accident and belies Bach Studies’ fragmentary genesis, premiered as two standalone parts. Previous versions closed with the claustrophobic ensemble routine to Bach’s St Matthew Passion, which now opens the program.
One could wonder why Millepied didn’t pursue the project to its seemingly natural conclusion to present 100 percent Bach. But it seems he was right. Both halves remain stronger when consumed alongside their opposite.
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