BWW Review: MITTEN WIR IM LEBEN SIND/BACH6CELLOSUITEN, Sadler's Wells
At the beginning of the performance of Mitten wir im Leben sind/Bach6Cellosuiten, choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker (she's also one of the five dancers) comes right to the front of the stage and holds up what appears to be a peremptory finger as if to silence the welcoming applause. In subsequent, more complex iterations of this gesture, it becomes evident that this isn't a command at all. Rather, it's De Keersmaeker's way of numbering and demarcating each of the six suites within Bach's score.
This isn't the first time that De Keersmaeker, who is rather forensic as a choreographer, has turned to the music of Bach for dance inspiration. Here, De Keersmaeeker teams up with world-renowned French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, who plays for nearly two hours from memory and without an interval. He is the pivot around which each of the dancers from Rosas, De Keersmaeker's company, takes their turn. The intricate structure of Bach's music suits this intellectual approach to the elegant viscerality with which the dancers imbue the music.
It's an austere production, reflecting De Keersmaeker's choreographic signature. The dancers wear street clothes - shorts, T-shirts, converse trainers. It's also unusual to see Sadler's Wells' imposing stage denuded of all artifice, all the way to the rafters; even the wings have been taken out. Luc Schaltin's lighting design is an exercise in restraint too - it's mostly a flat white save for a colder white spotlight that picks out Queyras in different positions on stage and in chiaroscuro during a music-only interlude.
It's on to this stark stage and with a lack of fanfare that Queyras, seated with his back to the audience, De Keersmaeker and the first dancer, Michaël Pomero, arrive for the start of the performance. This austerity of mise-en-scene focuses the audience's attention keenly on the moving parts of the performance - i.e. the dance and the music - and is particularly apparent in moments of prolonged silence.
When the very athletic Boštjan Antoncic writhes and leaps on stage without the accompaniment of Queyras's cello, his dance vocabulary embodies the torture and despair inherent in the title of the piece Mitten wir im Leben sind, which translates as "in the midst of life". It's taken from the opening words of a Martin Luther chorale: "In the midst of life, we are in death."
As Antoncic's exertion causes him to pant heavily into the silence, the audience is riveted into complete stillness. The coughs and shuffles that usually issue from the audience in such moments of intensity are conspicuous by their absence.
Before each dancer takes their solo turn, geometric shapes in chalk and coloured tape are drawn on the floor. It was difficult to see the specifics of the shapes from the stalls, but each dancer seemed to use this as their initial point of entry into a motif particular to them before breaking out of the bounds of their geometry to respond to an overall pattern that repeated throughout all the suites. This pattern reaches its culmination when all five dancers take to the stage simultaneously, dancing their own individualised responses to the general theme within a cohesive group.
De Keersmaeker's precise, enigmatic and mathematical choreography is exacting about mirroring the architecture of Bach's music through dance and demands utter and sometimes wearying concentration from the audience. Given this stern attitude, it isn't difficult to imagine that a substantial part of the audience regarded it as a chance to hear the highly acclaimed Queyras play all of Bach's 6 Cello Suites in their entirety. It's the virtuosity of the music, then, rather than the dancing, that makes the two hours feel more like meditation than a trial.
Mitten wir im Leben sind/Bach6Cellosuiten was at Sadler's Wells
Photo credit: Sadler's Wells