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A Golden Gift

As Belgian choreographer and dancer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker approached her sixtieth birthday in 2019, she decided to gift herself a solo to the music of one of her favorite partners—Johann Sebastian Bach. That gift “The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988,” although in circulation since 2020, recently had its North American premiere at NYU Skirball.

Performance

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker: “The Goldberg Variations, BVW 988”

Place

NYU Skirball, New York, NY, February 22, 2024

Words

Karen Greenspan

Pavel Kolesnikov and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker in “The Goldberg Variations, BVW 988.” Photograph by Anne Van Aerschot

Music has always served as the ground for De Keersmaeker’s choreography, providing a structural framework for her compositions. Although her choreographies do not mimic or physically replicate the music, they do embody its structure and respond to the experience of it. And she has always been drawn to the challenge of choreographing to Bach with its complex architecture, creating five previous works to his music. De Keersmaeker once shared with me that even while making her first dance work “Violin Phase” to Steve Reich's music, she was already listening to Bach. Not feeling up to the challenge of choreographing to Bach at that time, she prepared herself methodically for the endeavor. So, it is no surprise that she would mark this milestone in her life, her body of work, and her dancing with a rendezvous with this composer.

“The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988” is a 2-hour solo to Bach’s work for keyboard by the same name with only a brief pause halfway through for a costume change. The music is comprised of an aria (theme), thirty variations on the theme, and finally a reprise of the aria. For Bach, this was a late-career work composed of a repeating series of complex musical forms incorporating the Baroque style of his day as well as reaching toward an expressive style of the future while offering an opportunity for virtuosic musical display by the performer. The lengthy solo work is said to have been written for an insomniac patron who wanted to be entertained in an elevated manner during sleepless nights. 

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker in “The Goldberg Variations, BVW 988.” Photograph by Anne Van Aerschot

The piece begins as De Keersmaeker and pianist Pavel Kolesnikov both walk onto the dark stage barefooted. With this detail, we understand that both dancer and musician are on equal footing in this creative endeavor. De Keersmaeker, wears a sheer, loose, black dress, which she exchanges during the pause for a tan-colored pantsuit and later, for silver sequined hotpants and a tangerine-colored blouse. Her silver hair is pulled back in a ponytail. She begins her dance in silence while Kolesnikov, dressed in shorts and cut-off top, remains standing by the piano, situated downstage to the audience’s left. De Keersmaeker pivots around her central axis pausing momentarily in different directions with one arm extended straight forward—like a sundial or a compass demarcating time or coordinates in space—until she stops and points her arm straight up. She turns to face a rectangular panel of silver foil that extends across the right side of the stage resembling a window that looks onto a starlit sky. She bows. She blows onto the upturned palm of her hand and sends it outward. Forming a rectangle with her thumbs and forefingers, De Keersmaeker holds the shape to her eyes as if to focus her vision. She approaches the piano, turns, and dances away as Kolesnikov sits down to play.

The music washes over De Keersmaeker’s body in a very personal way. It appears to play her. She is no longer adhering to her “one note, one step” approach, although, she does perform a vocabulary of movements we have seen in her previous works for her company Rosas. Skipping, pivoting, spinning, arm swinging, pendular leg swings, and her famous, playful jump with both knees hugging the air spill out of her body just as the music rises from the keyboard. She dances her signature floor patterns tracing vertical and horizontal axes, circles, spirals, and pentagrams. They are the compositional structures essential to her embodied abstraction of the music’s underlying architecture. 

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Pavel Kolesnikov (piano) in “The Goldberg Variations, BVW 988.” Photograph by Anne Van Aerschot

At the same time, De Keersmaeker dances her response to the emotional power and beauty of the music, as when her chest and head suddenly lift to the ceiling and send her turning toward a new direction with an alternate set movements. Sometimes she simply stops or moves minimally, lying on the floor or sitting off to the side, giving primary attention to the music and the sensitive, textured interpretation by Kolesnikov. 

Most dramatically, De Keersmaeker interacts with the piano and the musician, which she has done in previous works. But here, she innovates some surprising exchanges. At times she holds onto the open side of the instrument like a ballet barre or home base and then pushes away to rejoin her dance. In another encounter, she grips the side of the piano and swings her body beneath it as if seeking refuge from her daunting task. After pausing there, she pushes her body away from the instrument and rolls away, her arm still reaching toward it for a connection. She fluctuates between letting the music carry her and distancing herself from it—like when she chases Kolesnikov off the piano bench to dance for a moment in silence.

On another level, De Keersmaeker makes visible her response to the immensity of the task she has set for herself. She starts out with energetic commitment—her movements crisp, precise, and spritely. Deeper into the piece, we see exhaustion creeping in when she plops down on the corner of the piano bench snatching a moment of rest or when she ends a variation hobbling off, bent forward like an old woman. Poking fun at herself for having the audacity to make this work, she tries a little of everything: whimsical hip wiggles, clumsy scarecrow-like arms, even a John Travolta pose from Saturday Night Fever. Humorous interactions with the piano and Kolesnikov add to the self-irony as when she stops by the piano to check the musical score and gestures the variation number to the audience—reassuring both herself and us where we are in this project. De Keersmaeker again runs through her initial sequence of movements, but now undone by the accumulated exertion, she moves with jerks and tics until she turns toward the piano, holds her arms up, and gestures emphatically to Kolesnikov that she has had enough. Receiving no reprieve from Kolesnikov or Bach, she walks downstage audibly muttering to herself.

In the final reprise of the Goldberg aria, De Keersmaeker returns to her initial movement sequence pivoting around herself and priming her sights with the rectangle held to her eyes. Then she throws in a subtle touch—a quick gesture—stirring a pot while consulting the recipe. And with this, she finds her direction, her north star, and points her arm straight up as the lights go to blackout.

Pavel Kolesnikov and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker in “The Goldberg Variations, BVW 988.” Photograph by Anne Van Aerschot

The set and lighting design by Minna Tiikkainen plays a notable role in shaping the drama of the production. The large rectangular foil panel hanging on the right side of the stage gives the impression of a window into the cosmos. A large rectangle of white light appears diagonally below the foil panel like moonlight. It slowly travels down and across the floor implying the passage of time. The light eventually diminishes to a single spot and then disappears altogether. At times, either De Keersmaeker or Kolesnikov or both perform in total darkness. A single spotlight comes up shining upon a crumpled pile of golden foil to the left of the piano. As the light intensifies, it plays upon the folds in the foil creating an otherworldly luminescence radiating onto the piano. And one must mention the long metal bar that De Keersmaeker dryly kicks downstage, stopped by Kolesnikov’s foot one moment before it rolls into the audience, signifying the end of the first half and concretizing the musical punctuation mark.

De Keersmaeker’s dance is not a virtuosic solo. The dance is instead an affirmation of purpose and passion (making dances and dancing) with consideration to this time in her career and life. With “The Goldberg Variations,” De Keersmaeker returns to her now old friend Bach and recommits herself to what she states is “the most basic relationship between dance and music—where someone plays live music and people dance to it.”  She confirms the principles and methods that she has employed to make her dances—using the structure of the music as a blueprint but not a slave master and adding the occasional human gesture, to stir an emotional response. She accomplishes this marathon of a solo with integrity, perseverance, and thankfully, a bit of lighthearted humor. 

Karen Greenspan


Karen Greenspan is a New York City-based dance journalist and frequent contributor to Natural History Magazine, Dance Tabs, Ballet Review, and Tricycle among other publications. She is also the author of Footfalls from the Land of Happiness: A Journey into the Dances of Bhutan, published in 2019.

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