Bach/Brandstrup – Goldberg


Clara Barbera
Laura Caldow
Tommy Franzén
Steven McRae
Riccardo Meneghini
Tamara Rojo
Thomas Whitehead

Kim Brandstrup – Choreography
JS Bach – Music (‘Goldberg’ Variations)
David Hudson – Designs
Paule Constable – Lighting
Leo Warner – Video Designs
Ian Dearden – Sound

Phillip Gammon (piano)

Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler

Reviewed: 21 September, 2009
Venue: Linbury Theatre, The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Kim Brandstrup is an intelligent choreographer who clearly thinks deeply about his subject and creates with subtlety and insight. He is Danish and there is, if I may be excused a cliché, a Scandinavian coolness to his approach to dance movement. There is a certain cerebral quality which informs his choreography; this is no bad thing, and here whilst not seeking in any way to dance to Bach’s work, he does strive to ensure that his dancers dance within it.

Goldberg is his reaction to the eponymous variations, played live and in recording by retired Royal Ballet stalwart, Phillip Gammon. Brandstrup, in collaboration with Royal Ballet star ballerina Tamara Rojo, has assembled a mixed group of dancers: Rojo, McRae and Whitehead from the resident company at Covent Garden, the others contemporary performers with the addition of Franzén, a street dance exponent.

Mirroring Bach’s all-encompassing quality, Brandstrup explores movement in a variety of forms, and has taken the rehearsal process as the core of his performance – dancers warm up, mark out steps, watch, practise and perform. From this Brandstrup weaves his web – leitmotivs of movement reoccur throughout; but just as a rehearsal of the same piece will be affected by such mundane things as different light, spontaneous change of direction or interaction, so too the palette of movement is subtly changed and altered as the work progresses. Overlaid onto this is a strong feeling of the passing of time: a door at the back of Richard Hudson’s elegantly minimal set opens at regular intervals, dancers emerging from beyond for another day’s rehearsal.

Dancers assume the same positions and groupings before, as with the musical variations, creating new movement and ambience. Modern touches (some variations start being played through a flickering TV set; Whitehead at one moment dances with the remote control in his hand) are woven into the work. Goldberg is unhurried and unspectacular in its effects and totally modern in its idiom – but one senses that Brandstrup and his dancers inhabit both the space of the stage and the music we hear.

Brandstrup echoes the music and runs through the panoply of emotions, from playful competition and skittishness to deep sadness and melancholy. The impossibly beautiful Rojo, as striking as a Cocteau heroine, seems to have a broken relationship with Thomas Whitehead’s muscle-bound brooder: their gestures are of mutual disgust at times, downcast yearning at others. Rojo also smiles and ‘plays’ with other cast members, not least Jonny Franzén’s diminutive yet explosive presence, his street dancing subtly interwoven with more conventional stage movement. Most striking is Steven McRae’s ‘sitter-out’, seated with his back to audience at the pianist’s side, engrossed in the playing and only intermittently aware of the others and their daytime exertions.

He only comes to ‘life’ after the stage has emptied and Rojo sinks into sleep at the back of the stage, astonishing with his virtuosic movement which is informed by a deep musicality. Like an incubus, he stalks Rojo’s dreams. It is only as the cycle nears its end that he tentatively engages in a long pas de deux with her: two mesmeric performers at last united, with Rojo fully engaged with a gentle and hesitant partner who at first shrinks from her touch. Brandstrup choreographs well for these two. The atmosphere is not exactly erotic – McRae maintains his other-worldly quality even at the moments of greatest intimacy – but it is tangible.

Lighting for this production is stunning and melds effortlessly with equally breathtaking video effects: from the lines of light drawn across the stage to the giddy rotation of a cage of lines, the stage is enlivened and the dance literally illuminated. Shadows cast by side lights become a video of shadows so that the dancer can leave his spot while his shadow moves on. Costumes range from modern dance classics (baggy pants and tee shirts), to the three ballet dancers’ black outfits: Whitehead in American Graffiti jacket, Rojo in the simplest and most flattering of little black dresses and McRae in tight polo top and black trousers, his lightly quiffed hair and period silhouette evoking the great hoofers of the past.

Goldberg is a fine work from a mature dance creator unafraid to experiment and to use the best that technology can offer. With Rojo and McRae at their centre, the small troupe succeed in evoking Brandstrup’s world to Bach’s eternal creation. The work ends with a return to the first variation; the world has gone full circle; we have seen the panoply of human emotion. Much food for thought indeed.

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