When Bach makes you dance

Andersson Dance and the Scottish Ensemble combine

BACH’S GOLDBERG VARIATIONS form one of the most important and revered bodies of work in music. Taken on their own, the pieces — published in 1741 — are some of the most performed and interpreted works of any of the great composers.

Combine them with dance, and you get something entirely new and different.

At this year’s Savannah Music Festival, Andersson Dance and the Scottish Ensemble combine at the Lucas to present “Goldberg Variations – ternary patterns for insomnia.”

In it, eleven musicians and five dancers perform Goldberg Variations “as equal partners, resulting in a singular experience of musician and dancer performing as one,” the Festival says.

In 2015, choreographer Örjan Andersson of Stockholm’s Andersson Dance and Jonathan Morton, Artistic Director of Glasgow’s Scottish Ensemble string orchestra, banded together to create this version, inspired by Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s noted 1985 transcription of the Variations for strings. 

We spoke to the Scottish Ensemble’s Jonathan Morton last week.

Tell me about the specific appeal of the Variations to this project. Why are these works particularly well-suited to a dance/movement interpretation?

The concept of ‘variations’ is not only one of the fundamental building blocks of music, but something that’s also observable in the natural world, as well as human nature. This may help explain its enduring appeal throughout musical history. It’s also a highly intelligible, flexible and robust format, and this was one of the reasons Örjan [Andersson, choreographer] and I were drawn to it. We were looking for a certain amount of freedom to punctuate and organise the musical and dramatic narrative, and Bach’s Goldberg Variations seemed like the perfect fit.

How does Ensemble preparation/rehearsal for this performance differ from the usual performance routine?

The main difference in how we prepare for this kind of performance is that there’s more time for development - both of us as musicians, and artistically in terms of the developing the ideas behind the production. It does also throw up new demands.

One of the biggest elements is the need to memorise large chunks of music, which isn’t something we’re usually expected to do. But then, neither is moving around with dancers whilst playing!

Being choreographed means having to think about and develop more spatial awareness, flexibility and physicality in a completely new way. Thankfully we all really enjoy it, and look forward to being able to tour these productions.

Does this interpretation perhaps speak to the more vernacular aspects of Bach/Baroque music, i.e. strong rhythms and consistent tempos which can lend themselves to dance?

I don’t think this was an explicit aim at the starting point of this collaboration. However, from listening to audience feedback over the last few years, it seems that the show does bring out certain aspects of the music which many people find surprising - a sense of humour sometimes verging into the absurd, for example, or a sense of manic creative energy. I think this helps to reconnect Bach’s music with the realm of everyday existence.  

Is there a particular advantage to the Sitkovetsky transcription?

It is the main transcription for a string ensemble without a harpsichord, and offers flexibility together with his original transcription for string trio, which we use at certain points during the show. It suits us perfectly!


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