The dance performance


We shall cease to be mere spectators and become participants in the movement that is presented to us, and though to all outward appearances we shall be sitting quietly in our chairs, we shall nevertheless be dancing synthetically with all our musculature.1

The dance performance was designed to provide an answer to the second research question: Is it possible, using experiences from Baroque dance practice, to create a situation where a modern audience could reconnect this music to its dance origins?

To offer a new encounter with the Bach cello suites, I felt the need to propose a different performance situation from that of the standard solo recital. An attempt at reconstructing a hypothetical original performance setting would have been one way to go; however, this alone would not have changed the conditioning or preconceptions of the public. When Bach wrote his suites, he certainly had in mind an audience highly familiar with the subtleties of la belle dance, something that cannot be expected from a modern audience.2 Offering dance lessons before the start of the performance could have compensated for this, making it easier for the audience to recognise the dances when listening to the music; nevertheless, such situations tend to become rather untidy, and in the end I decided against this solution. 

Ultimately, I chose to situate the performance in an ordinary concert hall, with the audience seated in a traditional amphitheatre. While this may have counteracted the impression of ‘newness, it offered obvious advantages in terms of audience attention and convenience. With such a setting, I relied on kinaesthetic empathy to create the recognition and embodiment that I hoped for. The performance was created with this in mind.3


In the end, I think the answer to the research question lies in the performance itself, in the form of embodied knowledge inviting the audience to break out of their listening habits. I hope it conveyed a new, more physical understanding of the dance element in the Bach cello suites.

The dance performance Inspired by Dance was created in close collaboration with choreographer Janne-Camilla Lyster and three dancers, Karin Modigh, Elizabeth Svarstad and Adrian Navarro, who all contributed to the choreographies.4 Video 7 shows the performance as it was given in the Lindeman Hall of the Norwegian Academy of Music on 19 August 2012. Below I give a description of its different elements with commentary (in italics).


I – The exploration

This part of the performance was designed to overcome the barrier of understanding that is often felt by a modern public when watching Baroque dance. Here, the dance is developed element by element, with frequent repetitions so that the audience can recognise and identify these elements when they appear in the full choreographies. This is crucial for the kinaesthetic empathy to work in the second part of the performance. I chose to give this section the form of a lecture-performance, alternating choreographed sequences and spoken commentary.5

Prelude (00:23)

The stage is blacked out. The Prelude from the First Suite is played while the light gradually illuminates the stage, lined with two rows of chairs, suggesting the layout of a ballroom.

Arguably the most iconic of all cello music, the first prelude sets the stage, suggesting an anchoring of the performance in a collective memory filled with associations to the canonical concert tradition.

The sarabande sequence I 

This sequence is based on the choreography I wrote to the Sarabande of the Second Suite.6 It was conceived as a direct translation of my physical experience of the musical gestures and phrases after roughly two and a half years of Baroque dance practice. It is relatively simple, both in the way the steps are organised and in its use of space, and follows the music closely without attempting any important degree of independence.

1. (07:45) A single dancer, Elizabeth, walks the floor pattern of the sarabande choreography in the rhythm of the dance steps, without music.

Standing and walking are the first things Rameau discusses in his Maître à danser. It represents the link between the Baroque dance and fundamental human body use. Significantly, the dancers perform the whole first part without shoes: the audience hears the sound of feet moving on the floor, suggesting the idea of music inherent in dance movements. This section also draws attention to the line traced by the dance on the floor, an important element of Baroque choreographies. 

2. (09:30) All three dancers now start walking the same floor pattern, each with a different starting point and orientation in space. From time to time, one dancer stops his or her movement and performs a gesture before rejoining the walking.

The presence of three dancers introduces the idea of interaction and distance in space. Crossing floor patterns create multiple points of focus and generate encounters that may seem random, but also give the impression of a larger body expanding and contracting. The sound of the steps is reinforced. Already hinting at the different port des bras, the gestures interrupt the slightly hypnotic effect of the rhythmic walk and give associations to the affects communicated by the dance.

3. (11:25) The crossing floor patterns continue, but the dancers now insert fragments from the full choreography at different points in their progression. The music joins in, but only with small parts of phrases.

The dance fragments seem to grow naturally out of the established movements, at first tentatively, then more assertively. When the music starts, it comes as a reflection of what is seen and felt in the dance. The audience may or may not create their own links between the fragments by projecting the missing music onto the movements.

The arm bourrée (14:15)

The sarabande sequence is broken off by a choreography on the Bourrée from the Fourth Suite. It demonstrates the typical arm movements in la belle danse by separating the steps and their associated arm gestures.7 The slightly comical windmill-like effect is entirely intentional; furthermore, the sequence is an allusion to Mark Morris’s choreography of the same movement in Falling Down Stairs’.8

The sarabande sequence (II)

The second part of the sarabande sequence is an exploration of the correlation between musical and choreographic gestures.

4. (15:52) Two phrases from the sarabande choreography are explored through the use of techniques and elements from contemporary dance. The music accompanies the transformations with different degrees of simplification.

Adrian uses his experience from contemporary ballet to transform these phrases by diminishing and augmenting the movements of the Baroque dance. This section, which grew out of an improvisation during the rehearsals, aims to engage the audience in a reflection on movement. Once again, the goal is to overcome the barrier of understanding, creating a physical response that will allow the actual Baroque dance movements to resonate more strongly.

5. (19:25) The next section is somewhat didactic, and analyses in detail two steps from the sarabande choreography, the coupé à deux mouvements and the pas grave. They are accompanied by corresponding phrase fragments from the first bar of Bachs sarabande.

By way of a workshop-like demonstration, the step units are shown to consist of vertical and horizontal movement, weight transfer, and arm gesture. In this process of reductio ad absurdum and repetition, the audience is invited to focus on the relationship between physical and musical gesture in very small events: the origin of the impulse to start sound and physical movement, the shape of the notes, or the kinaesthetic energy of a step.

6. (23:50) The dancers finally come together and perform the full sarabande choreography.

Whereas Baroque social dances are mostly danced by a couple in mirror movement, theatre dances exist in many varieties, from solo dancing to large groups. By performing the sarabande choreography in unison, the impact of the movements is reinforced at the same time as its non-historical status is affirmed through the continuous parallel movement. With the previous preparation, the audience now has a chance to understand better the movements of the Baroque dance, and will be better equipped to identify and sense the connections between the music and the dance.

II – The dance suite

The first part has a pedagogical dimension. This second part is a celebration of the marriage of music with dance, mixing elements from the formal ball and the ballet. Some of the choreographies were made specifically for the cello suite movements; others use existing historical models, chosen to explore the possibilities of independence between music and dance. The music is treated as an accompaniment to the dance, adapting to its needs regarding both tempo and repeat patterns.

Allemande, First Suite. (26:30)

The allemande is not danced, but takes on its musical function as a prelude while the dancers put on their shoes in preparation for the choreographic suite.

Courante, Second Suite. (28:40)

Following the model of the formal bal de cour, the dancing starts with the stately courante, complete with reverences and alternating of partners. For the first couplets, the choreography follows the Courante simple von der Hand and Courante figurée von der Hand from Tauberts 1717 treatise (Russell 2012: 504–5, 510–11). For the last repeat, the dancers created a courante à trois that never existed, where one of the dancers always dances against the two others.9 The music features my reconstruction of the hypothetical French style courante simple alternating with Bachs original double. In this way, the simplified, dance-like version accompanies the original Taubert courantes, and the last double accompanies the augmented trio choreography.


Gavotte, Sixth Suite. (31:50)

The gavottes from the Sixth Suite were originally for a five-string instrument fitted with an extra e-string a fifth above the normal cello top string. When playing this suite on the four-string cello, the frequent shifts and extensive use of thumb introduces considerable technical difficulties to this already complicated piece, giving it an athletic aspect that inevitably distorts the graceful nature of the music. Transposing the music a fifth down to G brings it within the range of the four-string cello. Once its technical difficulties are overcome, this set of gavottes, especially the bucolic second gavotte, makes good music for dancing.

We chose the Entrée pour une femme by Pécour from the Gaudrau dance collection to accompany the first of the two gavottes (Gaudrau 1712: 77–78). Using such a distinctive choreography for Bachs refined gavotte presents an important challenge to both dancer and musician, and provides a good opportunity to observe how dance and music can evolve in separate spaces. The second gavotte, a gavotte en rondeau with associations with rustic dances, provides a striking contrast. It was choreographed collectively by the dancers, closely following the music, and takes the form of a contredanse using typical floor patterns like ronde ordinaire, chaine, and moulin. The basic step, the contretemps de gavotte, is increasingly emphasised with each repeat of the rondeau, culminating in a full pirouette before the assemblé. When the first gavotte returns, all three dancers perform the Pécour Entrée in unison.

Menuet, Second Suite. (34:23)

Roughly speaking, the early eighteenth-century minuet exists in three versions: The menuet ordinaire and the contredanse menuet, which are both ballroom dances, and the theatrical or choreographed minuet.

This choreography presents all three varieties starting with the minuet in An Ecchoe’ taken from Pemberton (1711: 5–6).10 This short minuet has none of the figures of the menuet ordinaire, but presents a playful sequence of floor patterns and exchanges inherited from the contredanse repertoire, exploiting interesting possibilities for interactions between the three dancers. The second minuet was choreographed by Elizabeth and Karin as a menuet ordinaire with its obligatory figures. Both Rameau and Taubert allow for variations in the step repertory of the minuet, and the dancers used this occasion to include as many step combinations as possible. The repeat of the first minuet uses a Menuet by Mr Isaac completed by excerpts from Tomlinson’s Menuet danced by Mme Santlow to illustrate the through-composed, theatrical minuets.

Bourrée, Fourth Suite. (37:35)

I have always been intrigued by the possibility of using this bourrée for dance accompaniment. Even without approaching a dance tempo, the first bourrée presents the cellist with technical challenges that can make it sound busy and awkward. To mirror the instrumental complexity, this piece needed a choreography with a strong character. Elizabeth and Adrian responded by creating a magnificent burlesque bourrée, exploiting and highlighting the theatrical aspect of the music. The echo effects in Bachs music are reflected in the imitations and responses of the dance, and the choreography uses floor patterns that depart from the classical, symmetrical organisations dominating the choreographies of Feuillet and Pécour. The inspiration here comes from the poses of the commedia dellarte, and from Lambranzis (1716) collection of theatrical dance descriptions.

The music of the second bourrée is a complete contrast. Where the first is filled with riotous fusées and runs, the second, with its persistent two-part texture, is held-back and simple, almost to the extreme.11 The bass moves in regular minims and the top part contrasts this with a syncopated amphibrachic metre (crochet–minim–crochet). 

For this music, Karin created a solo that is noble and controlled, with virtuosic footwork, jumps, and ornaments taken from the theatrical repertoire that defies the minimalism of the music. It seems as if the music steps back to leave room for the dancer. The dancers gestures also introduce a narrative element by suggesting a corrective to the boisterous couple, who, when they come back for the repeat of the first bourrée, seem to have calmed down somewhat. In reality, they use the same step material, but the change of character is introduced by the floor pattern, which is now symmetric.12

 Sarabande, Fifth Suite. (40:15)

This movement poses many questions concerning its connection with dance; from the very beginning of the project, I felt it needed to have a place in the final performance. Here, Bach completely avoids the usual sarabande rhythms and writes a movement of great structural complexity with an impressive economy of means. The continuous broken chords favour harmonic superimpositions that create a feeling of ambiguity, conferring a certain enigmatic aura to the music (Hoppstock 2012: 111–25). The falling quavers that come to a halt on the third beat of each bar give an impression of effort, even hopelessness and desolation.

Before the choreography to this sarabande was created, I divided the piece into three sections (AA–B–B), and established a ‘common ground’ in the form of a rhetorical-emotional description of each of the strains. The dancers then took one section each; each created his or her personal interpretation in dance terms of this common ground. The sections are performed solo, except for a determined sequence of steps when the baton is passed from one dancer to the next. The dancers seem to move in a barren space like stranded souls, interacting only when their paths happen to cross.

III – The Cello Suite

(43:00) After serving the dance during the first two parts of the performance, Bachs music now takes centre stage with the entire second suite. But, as the magic of dance has (hopefully) has its effect, the audiences ears and bodies are now tuned differently to the music than would be the case in an ordinary concert situation. A major part of the suite has already served as an accompaniment to various dances, which has created associations – kinaesthetic recollections that make the music resonate in a new way. That I have been through the same process of discovery in the course of the performance creates a communion of experience with the audience that favours a common, physical understanding of the music.

Lessons learned from the dance performance

Creating and preparing the dance performance was an immense learning process on several levels, and I am grateful to my collaborators for their continuous feedback and enthusiastic participation in the process. Without their willingness to listen to and understand my ideas, it would not have been possible to translate these into dance. What seems a long rehearsal period for a musician can be catastrophically short for dancers; thus, in the course of the process I had to come to terms with this difference in time perspective. The limitations on time forced us to reduce the amount of choreographic material, which meant I had to omit some movements I had hoped to see choreographed.

I learnt much about the practical issues relating to a production for the stage, such as scenography, lighting, and the laying of dance mats. The performance situation also forced me to break through the barrier of playing the Bach suites by heart in public, something that had haunted me ever since my student days. Adapting the suites to the dance also meant adopting a practical attitude toward these awe-inspiring works; when necessary I changed the repeat pattern of a movement, or even transposed it to make it work in the context of the performance. No doubt, this is what Bach himself would have done if ever these questions had arisen in his time.

To conclude, I would like to quote from an email that was received by one of the dancers from a relative the day after the dance performance. It suggests that at least one of the members of the audience experienced something that came close to my intentions.

Thank you for a no less than fascinating and rewarding performance today. … Little did I suspect the range of expression, aesthetics and not least the humanity and emotion inherent in the movements, steps, and gestures of this dance. … For me, the conclusion was the last piece without dancers. … It was impossible not to visualise your dance here, after what we had seen earlier, and it would have been impossible for the music not to appear alone in the end after having seen the dance without music in the beginning.


Next chapter

John Martin, The Dance in Theory (1965)

Video 7: ‘Inspired by Dance – the entire performance.13