A evening of Baroque music and dance: Dance of the Nations

St John’s, Smith Square, London
May 11, 2019

Charlotte Kasner

Much is made of’ ‘authenticity’ with the striving to achieve it only equalled by the inability to define it. There is certainly an argument to be had in favour of playing period instruments, but even if we were capable time travel, we could never experience the Baroque in the same way as the original proponents. Therein lies the problem with this interesting evening from The Bach Players and Mercurius Company.

The instruments may be original and may even be strung in the same way, but the perception of the sound can never erase the experience of time. We do not have 18th-century ears and there is nothing we can do about it. The anachronism of electric lighting and the ever-present screaming of emergency sirens that punctuate the London ambience are other interruptions that anchor us in the present.

There musicianship and commitment of the Bach Players quintet was excellent, but it was a pity that they spent almost as much time introducing each item as they did playing. The harpsichord was a delight and delicately played by Silas Wollaston, not least because it doesn’t suffer from having a contemporary version. However, the witty Rebel miniatures fared less well, the French being over-enunciated and laboriously translated.

Dance of the NationsPhoto Amy Ryan Media
Dance of the Nations
Photo Amy Ryan Media

When it comes to dance, original notation has been decoded which enables Baroque dance to be reproduced and new dances to be created using the notated steps. Both were shown in this concert. While dancer and choreographer Ricardo Barros and the Mercurius Company undoubtedly put a great deal of care into that reproduction and recreation, as with the period instruments, we are not a Baroque audience, nor indeed, are most of us aristocrats who performed and watched it. That makes it difficult to see it as anything other than a curiosity, albeit one that spawned what became ballet as we know it.

A mere glance at Noverre’s 1756 treatise on dance (written while he was in England in 1756) proves just how international dance was, even then. The clichés have lasted down the centuries too. The dance showed us melancholy Portuguese, graceful French (of course!) and fiery Spaniards, complete with castanets and reminding us of how prevalent their use was in Baroque music and dance.

The presentation would have been much enhanced if costumes had been more stylised, however. Fabrics and colours were mostly not particularly suggestive of the period and in one dance, the women had decidedly modern-looking hair.

From the dance point of view, the last, pantomimic, Burlesque de Quixotte, had particularly unfortunate costumes. The women were clad in black leggings and leotards which made them seem oddly naked. Dulcinea had a swathe of red nylon stitched onto her shoulder which she wafted around and the other two women representing Sancho Panza’s donkey and Rocinante had papier mache horse heads in which they skipped around in a most un-equine-like manner. It was a shame given the effort put into recreating the music and steps.

But perhaps it depends just where one is coming from. Even given the various issues, Dance of the Nations certainly comes very close to being a very charming, and indeed unusual evening.