Lyon Opera Ballet: 6th March 6pm
Adelaide Festival Theatre
Though attending classical music concerts since I was 16 (late night buses back from Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in the rain) I have not watched much contemporary dance. I remember Clive James once writing that this was the last art form he had come to appreciate. I had a colleague in Helsinki, semi-retired in his early 60s, who had recently discovered a passion for contemporary dance – definitely not ballet – which he now pursued with a vengeance. A long-term cultural activist friend, plunging into the Amazon twenty years ago to do Theatre of the Oppressed, now works there exclusively in music and dance. I do though remember vividly a Michael Clark performance of The Fall’s I am Curious Orange in the mid-1980s, and a silent (other than grunts and heavy breathing) performance by DV8 in Gothenburg over a decade ago. At a time when dance shines as one of the few beacons of hope over the blasted heath of Australia’s publicly funded art landscape, perhaps my time has come at last. If it has, then I can’t think of a better place for it to have started than with these Three Grand Fugues.
What struck me immediately was the lack of much reference to Beethoven’s music in the free handout (I never buy those 30 Dollar souvenir things) – it was about the choreographers and the company. Which is fair enough, given the astonishing CVs of these three women – Lucinda Childs, Anne Terisa De Keersmaeker, Maguy Marin – nearly a century of work between them, and the dancers’ physical labour about to be expended on the stage. Though calling this ‘an unforgettable evening of exclusively female work’ seemed a bit much, given the number of male dancers and, well, poor old dead white Ludwig himself. It made more sense when I realised that the music was not live but recorded – and (not having thought this through in advance) how could it not be? A quartet playing the Große Fugues three times, or three different quartets? I also realised that for me the dance was to be an accompaniment to the music, whereas for most of the audience, I suppose it was the other way around.
The first piece, by Lucinda Childs, had Beethoven played by the Lyon Opera’s string orchestra, a choice which only made sense as the dance progressed – or rather, didn’t progress. The dancers were dressed – the programme again – ‘academically’ in grey, befitting the ‘purely academic vocabulary’ deployed by Childs. Responding to the art world of New York Minimalism in the late 1960s/ early 1970s, Childs eventually worked with two of its great musical names, Sol LeWitt and Philip Glass. Using basic figures, repeated with simple variations, and replacing the ‘organic’ growth of traditional classical music with increases of speed and volume, Minimalism, opened up a quieter space, away from the shouty expressionism of the 1960s. In its cool concern with pattern and variation it could connect with a certain idea of the fugue. Child’s set, ‘a structure of luminous lace’ recalling ‘Indonesian fretwork’ also makes that connection, of intricate patterns repeated, inverted, doubled, mirrored. The dancers moved in formal patterns, for the most part coupled man-woman, like a courtly dance. At times it approached what my Finnish friend would call ballet.
One of the problems Beethoven faced was that the fugue and classical music mix with great difficulty. A Fugues is a baroque form, moving through the various keys as you would look up to contemplate a great cupula, gradually swivelling to take it all in, finally returning to where you started. Classical music moves through keys as if travelling to different landscapes, a journey through space-time. This has been linked to the very idea of ‘Progress’ which emerged at the same time, though German Romanticism also made it a personal journey of the soul. Beethoven put these together – think of the ‘Fate’ motif in the 5th symphony, and Adorno hearing it as the rise of the revolutionary bourgeoise. By the time of the Große Fugue these two – the personal and the political, as it were – had come apart somewhat. But for Beethoven there had to be progress, a growth of the soul through struggle. How was this to come through a fugue which was about uncovering and displaying the multiple patterns of a fundamentally ordered universe? The answer is in this frantic, angular, chaotic and angst-ridden music.
In the 1980s and 1990 a ‘classical Beethoven’ appeared, having none of the dark-browed romantic, stressing instead his continuation of formal, balanced, restrained order. Fugue demanded technical counterpoint, which was something of a lost art retrieved from under the chordal progressions of the classical period. Child’s piece was about this formal ordering, the complex patterns of the music finding echo in the intricate arabesques of the dance. Yet to find such classical academicism in Beethoven’s most chaotic work is less a distinct reading and more a deliberate muffling. The Minimalist techniques were there: the fugue’s first quiet passage, where some kind of humanity is found still alive after the catastrophic collapse of the opening fugue, is marked simply by reducing the dancers to two couples, as you would the number of instruments. Less volume not a different world. The string orchestra itself softened the angularity of the music, taking it into a less frantic, neo-classical space. As Judith Mackrell wrote in her review for the Guardian just after its first performance: ‘there are moments when you hold your breath in disbelief as the dance rides out the most tempestuous passages of the score’. Indeed. When the dance ends, Beethoven’s music calling closure if not quite apotheosis, I felt we had not been taken anywhere. Perhaps like minimalism itself, which finds it difficult to end, as unlike Bach, it does not believe in the fundamental order or the universe, just the bad infinity of repetition.
With Anne Terisa De Keersmaeker – after being interrupted by a pretty redundant interval – we are back with a four-person string band (the Debussy Quartet), its individual voices now revelling in the agonistic struggle with each other, with the world. Twelve dancers, two women, all in black suits. There is no coupling, they barely touch each other. One woman does her own thing, walking around the stage looking on as the rest try and copy. The first one to take her jacket off, she’s a free radical, leaving an asymmetrical four and three to cope. We are right into Beethoven’s off-kilter fugue. The dance is squarely contemporary, street styles distantly referenced – Beyoncé stole her moves, allegedly – and sometimes a sense of a hip-hop competition. There’s an intense physicality here, bodies throwing themselves to the floor, writhing, but it’s no celebration. The dancers are disconnected, though aware of each other, a social landscape of fear, desire and distrust that somehow reminded me of her Belgian compatriots, the Dardenne brothers. The quiet passage here is one of exhaustion and respite, the dancers lying on the ground in a row. And when Beethoven introduces his unexpectedly joyful motif – almost a melody – half-way through, there is real elation in the group. As the relentless fugue grimly starts up again, the free radical taps the guy next to her, hey! And they smile and start dancing. At the end, after all that, they are a group, a gang, somehow holding together, looking forward, ready for it.
A non-interval, like a false hand-clap, where some get up to go but are hurried back in: and it’s dark. Another string quartet (Quartetto Italiano) starts up in the black, four voices instantly sounding more angular, isolated. The fugue’s opening unison statement of theme is obscene: it cannot be shown. As the unison gives way to the individual string voices, starting their fugal struggle for the third time now, the lights go on, and what looks like Bedlam appears. Maguy Marin’s four women in red, each occupying some kind of self-referential, psychotic space, with Michelangelo’s insane eyes occasionally flashing out to the audience. Beethoven has to keep his chaotic voices together, though his academic counterpoint quickly runs to the precipice and stops. These four dancers are radically apart, and apart from us. If there was a precipice left for them, they’d be over it in a flash. The post-fugal human section of the music gives some respite, but (as I recall) it is only as the joyous near-melody starts up, that they begin to move together or in sequence. There are times when the four dancers and four musical voices seem to mirror each other, though not in any obvious instrument to dancer way. Little patterns flicker across each of them, and they pick it up, and notice each other. And they are back in the fugue but somehow also together, and at the end, with some kind of resolution – in the sense of being resolved to do something. Judith Mackrell ends recalling Beckett’s The Unnamable: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
Beethoven doesn’t resolve the fragments he set in motion, but, yes, we must go on. It’s a different kind of order to that of Bach, but also to the infinite patterning of Minimalism. Marin and Keersmaeker’s pieces date from 2006, Child’s from 2016. An ordered universe now seems the preserve of the non-human; we might face extinction but evolution, that cathedral assembled by a blind watchmaker, continues for other species, those that survive. We can look up and admire the cupola, but it’s off-centre, like Child’s lacework set, askew, extending over other, unseen, horizons. We might have to console ourselves with this at some point – cathedrals replaced by mausoleums to sex and death such as MONA. But to me, making the patterns mean something, finding out how they can bring us together – whether in those mean streetscapes of the social, or the dark recesses of the personal currently being eviscerated by ‘social’ media – this is Beethoven’s hope, animating the bodies of those young dancers on the stage.