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Culture

Dancing the fugue at the Beethovenfest

Three well-known choreographers of contemporary dance take a stab at Beethoven's "Great Fugue" in a fascinating experiment by the Lyon Opera.

Can one listen to the same piece three times in succession without it growing tedious? And with a work so difficult that it was once considered evidence of its composer's mental decline? If that music is translated into physical movement by three different choreographers in highly contrasting styles, there is no tedium involved. "You take the music in completely differently this way," says project director Thomas Scheider of the Beethovenfest, which invited the Lyon Opera Ballett to Bonn for the first-ever presentations of three new choreographies.

In the three depictions, male and female dancers moved to Beethoven's opus 133 in familiar ballet steps before running, throwing themselves on the floor and conquering stage space in daring leaps. Later, women in red dresses moved their bodies in ecstatic convulsions.

Women dancers in red from the Ballet de l'Opera de Lyon | Maguy Marin (Opera de Lyon/Bertrand Stofleth)

Clad in red, women do the steps devised by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker

Dancemaster Beethoven

Choreographer Lucinda Childs works with techniques derived from neo-classical ballet, Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker's version is a clever mix of extroversion and control, and French choreographer Maguey Marin seems to give her dancers free rein.

Beethoven himself described his "Große Fuge" (Great Fugue) as "free-style here, form-bound there." He did, in fact, employ the baroque musical form of the fugue, but not strictly. That potential for free interpretation has piqued the interest of many choreographers. "The fugue is a form that gives choreographic work a lot of leeway," says Scheider. 

Dancers moving to choreography by Lucinda Childs (Opera de Lyon/Bertrand Stofleth)

Veritably classical ballet: the dancers closely follow the lines of music

Read more: What Beethoven has to do with love

Not exactly a hit tune

Beethoven originally set the Great Fugue as the final movement of his String Quartet opus 130. By that time, 1825 and 1826, he was completely deaf. With the work's many dissonances and intervalic leaps, musicians and audiences found it taxing, and Beethoven was asked to write a more accessible finale to the quartet.

The composer's publisher Mathias Artaria then released the Great Fugue separately. Whereas Beethoven's personal secretary and later biographer Anton Schindler described the fugue rather puzzlingly as "the highest confusion of the speculative mind," the publisher was duly impressed. During rehearsals, violinist Karl Holz wrote to Beethoven, reporting "Yesterday the quartet was rehearsed at Artaria's. We played it twice, Artaria was thoroughly delighted, and by the third time he heard the fugue, he found it quite comprehensible."

Three times is a charm

If the Great Fugue has to be listened to thrice to be understood, the Bonn audience had just that opportunity. The different dance renditions actually made the piece sound different each time. The music for strings has an elated feeling when interpreted by American choreographer Lucinda Childs' dancers, hovering elegantly over the stage in pairs and in full-body tricots. Even the dramatic parts have a lightness to them, with the arabesques and leaps perfectly fitting the music.

Dancers move to a Lucinda Childs' choreography (Opera de Lyon/Bertrand Stofleth)

Luciana Childs translates small sequences of motion into great dance

A pioneer of postmodern dance, Lucinda Childs began to experiment with everyday motions in the 1960s, incorporating inanimate objects and texts into her performances. But indicating her broad scope of styles, she gave the fugue a neoclassical treatment at the premiere in Berlin. 

Read more:The many women in Beethoven's life

A modern fugue

Belgian choreographer and dancer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker has grappled with Beethoven's fugue since 1992 and has also devised dance for Steve Reich's minimal music. Her take on the Grand Fugue is cast with six men and two women in black suits, running and hopping to the music and gradually shedding their jackets, ever full of momentum but never relaxed. If a dancer takes a short break on the side of the stage, he or she is in concentrated anticipation of the next action. "Some of the dancers roll on the floor and others glide upright through the stage space. It's a hallmark of Keersmaeker's style to use what is called the median position, and not just the vertical," explains former dance professor Claudia Jeschke, who has analyzed the piece. "Those were completely innovative dance forms," she adds. There's so much going on that the string quartet, situated at stage rear, falls into the background. The overall performance was rewarded with bravos.

Dancers in black and white (Opera de Lyon/Bertrand Stofleth)

Like high-performance sports, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's choreography places high demands on the dancers

The listening eye

The last rendition by Maguy Marin recalls the dance theater of the late Pina Bausch. In it, four women in red move to the music, mostly in a withdrawn, introverted mode and repeating the same gestures over and over again. As though undergoing an inner conflict, the women seem to lack orientation. "The gestures don't have a specific meaning. But you do experience something exciting," says Jeschke.

Swinging their upper bodies back and forth and beating their arms in front of their heads, the women finally come together in common movement only at the end, then lie exhausted on the stage floor.

Female dancers in red (Opera de Lyon/Bertrand Stofleth)

Finally released, the women find a moment of community

By this time it's clear that dance is communicated not through technique but also through multiple senses. The movements onstage create goosebumps among the audience members. The eye is involved - and of course the ear, which has actually taken in three different fugues and leaves the scene with various melodic sequences by Beethoven buzzing through the head.

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