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Interview: Dancing to Bach

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Jean-Guihen Queyras on their new project, with which they open the 2017/18 season at the Elbphilharmonie.

Six scores of Bach’s cello suites lie scattered on a large, wooden desk. In the centre of the room, five dancers and a cellist – the instrument pinched between the musician’s legs – are seated around the very same table. Jean-Guihen Queyras, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and four dancers from her company Rosas are preparing for a new performance at the Rosas studios in Vorst.

While the world-renowned cellist is playing, he talks the dancers through the harmonic and rhetoric structure of Bach’s piece. Everybody eagerly takes down notes on their personalised scores. »I’m extremely grateful and honoured that Jean-Guihen, despite his busy tour agenda, is taking the time to work with us here«, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker confesses. »I’ve been learning«, Queyras replies.

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker / Jean-Guihen Queyras

How did the idea to create a joint dance performance first arise?

Jean-Guihen Queyras: I must confess that I am a layperson when it comes to matters of dance. Often enough, some friends had the habit of inviting me to dance performances, but as such the pieces didn’t usually appeal to me – I was simply unable to detect any satisfying links between music and choreography. But then Belgian composer and organist Bernard Foccroulle recommended I have a look at the work of Anne Teresa.

Opening Concert on 3 September

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Bach renders the divine human and the human divine.

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker: It was indeed Bernard Foccroulle who brought us together and recommended I attend one of Jean-Guihen’s concerts at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. That’s where we first effectively discussed how we could possibly cooperate on a piece.

Queyras: It had always struck me that you had the habit of working with the method of a composer. You go to the roots, to the crux of a composition, from which you allows your choreography to grow. And that’s when I immediately sensed your desire to do something with Bach.

De Keersmaeker: Yes, but this is not the first time I've worked with Bach. Bach has always occupied a unique spot within classical music for me. It is always with some modesty and trepidation that I approach his music. There is simply no other composer that succeeds in conveying that sense of »embodied abstraction« as much as he does. He renders the divine human and the human divine. He stands at a unique moment in the history of music, in the history of mankind, even.

Probenfoto Jean-Guihen Queyras Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker

Bach’s music is rigidly structured, yet remains rooted in movement and dance.

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker

What is it that makes his music so appealing to dancers?

De Keersmaeker: Bach’s music is rigidly structured, yet remains rooted in movement and dance. It was Jean-Guihen who made me aware of how important the concept of a tonal harmony was to Bach – the relation between different keys, between major and minor. I sensed that didn't do enough with that in my previous Bach performances.

Queyras: You get much inspiration from the musicians you work with. Honestly, I have the feeling that I have infected you with my obsession for Bach’s harmonic flow. When playing the suites, I tend to just utterly centre my attention on that very flow. When I pointed out to you and the dancers during the rehearsals that an »inaudible« bassline lingering under the melody of the monophonic cello suites exists, you immediately urged me to write it out.

De Keersmaeker: In the Chaconne of the second violin partita, I once worked with Amandine Beyer on the underlying bassline. The basic movement in the choreography was then based on the principal »My walking is my dancing«. [De Keersmaeker stands up and walks across the room.] Walking is the simplest movement that transports me through space, and divides my time. Whereas the basic movement here was two-dimensional, it has now become three-dimensional. Today we find ourselves working on the horizontal and the vertical axes.

Probenfoto Jean-Guihen Queyras Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker

How can one translate the harmonic structure of the music into a posture of the human body?

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker

How does that work?

De Keersmaeker: The verticality of the spine is typical for the human posture, but the posture of an animal is horizontal, usually stood as it is on four legs. Rehearsing the cello suites has proved a veritable challenge. How can one translate the harmonic structure of the music into a posture of the human body? In my production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte at the Paris Opera we systematically linked key modulations or transitions from minor to major, to back- or forward, up- or downward, centrifugal or centripetal movements. There is much to learn from bodily language: a vertical spinal column conjures an open, positive sentiment whereas a forward-bent spinal column generates a closed, melancholic mood. Do you know when we as human beings assume a horizontal position with our spinal column, Jean-Guihen?

Queyras: When we go to sleep? Or something else? [laughs]

De Keersmaeker: Or die. It is usually associated with the act of surrender, the relationship between the passive and the active, between the yin and yang of Eastern philosophy, as it were. For the Lutheran protestant Bach, the relationship with death was not only a principal element in his cantatas but also in his other music. »Mitten wir im Leben sind mit dem Tod umfangen«, is a line of text translated from the latin from one of Luther’s medieval hymns that can also be read on Pina Bausch’s headstone.

Bach transcends the very principle of dance.

Jean-Guihen Queyras

Isn’t it a huge challenge to make a two-hour performance with only music for solo cello?

De Keersmaeker: Of course. As a largely monophonic instrument, the cello entails a certain economy of means. It is interesting to see how Bach maximises the capabilities of the instrument, pushes it as far as it can go.

Queyras: Yes, exactly. He ingeniously turns a handicap into an advantage. With Bach, the physical reality of the instrument and its player is as important as the intellectual construction of the composition. There is a mixture of spirit – the strength of the concept – and matter itself. Bach was very much aware of the effect of the addition of a triad or a four-note chord to his musical material, as a consequence, to the temporal progression of the piece as such.

Jean-Guihen Queyras Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker

The titles of the parts of the suites refer to different types of baroque dances. Did these take up a role in the making of the choreography itself?

De Keersmaeker: I once studied the fundamental characteristics of the baroque dances, for instance for Bach’s French Suite No. 5  in my project »Toccata«. But ultimately, these only form a very thin thread in the choreographic structure I designed for the cello suites: in the courantes we work with the idea of running, in the allemandes with a certain fluidity or rubato, in the sarabandes with the solemn aspect and in the gigues with a more energetic character.

Queyras: As it happens, it is impossible to apply the strict rules of the baroque dance to the cello suites. Bach used the basic principles of the dances to develop his musical vocabulary, but the parts of the suites are not real dances. I challenge anybody to dance a baroque allemande to the allemande of the sixth suite. Bach here transcends the very principle of dance.

Jean-Guihen Queyras Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker

I don’t want to compare our collaboration to a closed circle but rather to a spiral.

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker

Has the collaboration with the dancers influenced your own work as a cellist?

Queyras: Definitely. Last week I was interpreting the cello suites in concert, without dance. While I was playing, I pondered over the question of how the dancers would interpret the introduction of certain harmonic change, silence or a sudden build-up of tension. It is enormously important that we can work on these questions collectively here in one studio.

De Keersmaeker: The influence is always mutual. Additionally, during rehearsal every dancer brings their own personal experiences with them to the creative process. I have been working with four dancers with whom I have created a few of the essential projects of my career in the past few years. This time, each dancer will take up a key role in one of the suites. I don’t want to compare the collaboration with them to a closed circle but rather to a spiral. It is like returning to a beginning, yet at the same time being en route to something new.

Interview: Jan Vandenhouwe