Barbican Theatre, London
July 5, 2018
The exploration of music has always been a focus for Stockholm-based Andersson Dance founder and artistic director Örjan Andersson, who also makes a point of frequently inviting other artists to collaborate in various ways. Goldberg Variations – ternary patterns for insomnia, is a coming together of his company and Scottish Ensemble in what is not so much a bringing together of dance and music, as five dancers and eleven musicians, in that the latter also get to move. The evening is best viewed as a sometimes tongue-in-cheek, irreverent commentary on the music. It’s certainly a long way from your average classical concert.
Goldberg Variations – ternary patterns for insomnia is based on Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s famous 1985 transcription for strings of Bach’s 1742 composition. The insomnia reference comes from its Bach’s writing it to help a patron sleep, not that there was much chance of the evening making anyone nod off. Even when the attention does wane, or you don’t like something, worry not because something new is always just around the corner.
It opens with a burst of energy. The dancers kick in one by one, hips swivel and wiggle, shoulders shake, they prance, leaps are unconfined. It’s wonderfully playful and undisciplined. It’s not long before the musicians join in, bobbing around in their own ways, unable to contain themselves, it seems. With everyone in casual tops, jeans or baggy pants and trainers, it’s only the bare feet of the dancers and the instruments of the musicians that mark the two out.
As the variations come and go, Andersson really does let you see the music. Some sections are as lyrical as that opening is uncontained. Variation 3 is a delicious solo for Danielle de Vries. Number 5 sees all five dancers sweeping back and forth across the stage as if riding unseen waves. There are more solos, duets and trios before variation 15 brings them all together again in a dreamy slow-motion section full of bodies being lifted and supported, passed over and under one another, the mood being enhanced by subtle shifts in lighting.
It’s after Variation 16 that things come a little unstuck. A stepladder, a rope, a rack of clothes and other props are brought on. A man collapses continually onto four yellow cushions, which is oddly amusing, even if it and other sights leave you asking ‘Why?’. Another sticks paper tissues to his face, someone walks around with a huge, long tube on his arm, someone tries to walk with china bowls for shoes, and there’s an odd duet in black face masks. The props, outlandish costumes and ridiculous goings-on distract. Connection with the music gets increasingly distant, and the work starts to feel like a collection of disparate ideas. But still there are high points, not least another solo by de Vries in Variation 25, this time all quirkily frenzied, and one especially subtle moment when a violinist’s elbow is gently eased back by a dancer as he finishes bowing a variation.
There are times when the music and the wonderful musicians win in the first half of the evening too. Sometimes the dancers give up. “The Sixth variation is a canon. I can’t dance to it!” declares one of the women, leaving the stage to the Ensemble.
Besides joining in with the opening, musicians get to dance elsewhere too, throwing themselves into everything wholeheartedly. Two of them get even get their own solo, full of sitting on the floor, rolling around, slapping and stamping to the music, as everyone else watches. Taken out of their comfort zone, they looked awkward and, with all eyes on them, scarily vulnerable.
At the end, the stage empties leaving just double bassist, Diane Barry, who plays the single line on which the whole of Bach’s score is based. Relieved of all the activity, in my mind at least, I could see the music again. Sublime.