Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker: The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

Sadler’s Wells, London
September 6, 2022

Indulge me. A light-strewn kitchen on the outskirts of Brussels. Coffee on the stove, Bach heard throughout the house. This is how I imagine most days begin for the choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. They feel like a double-act of late; and that’s not a bad thing if you’re a fan of both.

De Keersmaeker returned to Sadler’s Wells with the UK premiere of The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, where she teams up with Siberian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov to make this new Bach exploration a reality.

It does not feel like her most accessible creation to date. Her work is never easy, but some feel harder than others. The experience did offer two for the price of one though: Kolesnikov is a consummate pianist, and gave a recital in his own right.

But how to explain the work, how to do it justice. Tricky.

The space element is paramount. Sadler’s Wells is vast, and felt even vaster with just two bodies and a grand piano. Elsewhere we had a rectangular expanse of silver foil about 10 feet high on the left side of the black box setting, and a large crumpled mass of gold foil on the floor downstage right near the piano.

The Goldberg Variations, BWV988 by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker
Photo Anne Van Aerschot

They both enter the space walking in curved pathways from stage left. And then we begin.

De Keersmaeker starts moving in silence. Her movement language is recognisable to regular viewers. It’s pedestrian in style, yet highly articulate: walking, running, hopping skipping, swinging, spinning and so on. When Kolesnikov joins her – without ceremony – it encapsulates their dynamic: constant, attentive, quiet.

A word that kept springing to mind was tension. Spatial, emotional. Almost a sense of unease. Not in relation to fear, more the contemplation of the unknown.

De Keersmaeker takes the work in many different directions. At times playful verging on goofy, at others a seriousness developed through melodic melancholy.

I enjoy both ends of her spectrum. The playful movement is purposeful and fresh, the melancholic etched with suggestions of physical and emotional grief. One of the Bach adagio vignettes sees her swing at full speed underneath the piano into a hanging position as Kolesnikov continues to play with delicate, relentless sorrow. When she begins to rock, almost imperceptibly, it conveys such resonance. How one imagines the mind feels in the depths of pain or grief. Trapped, immobile, in limbo. Dead but still breathing.

De Keersmaeker always challenges the senses, and Goldberg Variations is no different. At one point in the second half, the lights are taken completely down. Kolesnikov continues to play, the choreographic tactic forcing us to concentrate solely on the music. It causes the tension to rise again. Is it getting darker? Can I see her? How long will this last? And when her silhouette returns, we are even more subservient than before.

I don’t believe her agenda is to control in the negative sense. But I do believe, as an expert dance-maker, she’s totally aware of where she wants the focus to be, and on what.

That’s why I find her work so imperative. Regarding the content: it isn’t about what she’s doing, it’s about what she’s doing with it. In relation to space, time, music and such like. In this current epoch of overt stimulation, it’s both challenging and rewarding to be asked to consider movement, and the movement’s intention from an internal, conceptual perspective.

I envy her life. One of focus, research and exploration. I also imagine it’s a complex one in relation to balance. Her position in modern dance is undeniable, but does it allow for enough perspective and humility? At times her demeanour suggests no, or perhaps I was just feeling extremely challenged at that moment during the two-hour experience.

Goldberg Variations is another de Keersmaeker ride and a half. Full of questions, many unanswered. Which is why I, and I imagine many others, keep returning. She’s holding us captive.