The Goldberg Variations – Dancing Times






Posted on September 21, 2022

LEAD IMAGEgoldberg ┬® Anne Van Aerschot12
In her final blog on the Dancing Times website, Barbara Newman sees
Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker at Sadler’s Wells

The Goldberg Variations is the sixth piece Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker has choreographed to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, and there’s no way to talk about it without first considering the music. A solo work for the keyboard, intended for the harpsichord, the composition consists of an opening aria, which is repeated at the end, and 30 variations developed in a formal pattern of canons and established musical forms of widely varied character.

The score’s overall length and elaborate structure present monumental challenges to any dancemaker. When Jerome Robbins decided to tackle it, having never set a step to Bach, he said, “It was like approaching a beautiful marble wall. I could get no toehold, no leverage to get inside that building.” Yet his ballet, made in 1971 and named for the score, met its demands with extraordinary sensitivity and imagination; it remains in the repertoire of New York City Ballet and has also been staged in Paris and Munich.

Since creating her first dance to Bach’s music in 1993, De Keersmaeker has worked her way through the six Brandenburg concerti and the cello suites, often organising her pieces for a large group. In 2018, she asked the brilliant pianist Pavel Kolesnikov to join her in performing The Goldberg Variations, not as an accompanist but as a solo musician sharing the stage with her on equal terms. Once COVID-19 was in retreat, they realised this dance in 2020 and recently brought it to Sadler’s Wells for its UK premiere.

The Goldberg Variations.

Throughout her career, De Keersmaeker has deployed a minimalist vocabulary of natural movement – walking, running, skipping – to probe and expand simple geometric figures – lines, circles, spirals. Presumably she followed the same method in this piece, but over the course of two hours, I couldn’t discern the relation of the movements to each other or, except in the most general sense, to the music.

Merce Cunningham’s dancers used to rehearse in silence, because the choreography was made to be independent of the score, whether fixed or arranged by chance, to which they performed. It never crossed my mind that De Keersmaeker expected her solo to meet Bach coincidentally, yet I couldn’t find a throughline connecting them. I noticed repeated phrases, a few sequences that joked affectionately with the music, and many indications of spatial direction in pointing arms, crossed feet and rapid turns of the head. During the only break in the piece, she and Kolesnikov changed their costumes, which she continued to do through the second half. The lighting changed too, from dim to brighter, briefly leaving us in total darkness to listen, enchanted, without the slightest distraction.

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Pavel Kolesnikov c. Anne Van Aerschot

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Pavel Kolesnikov.

What a shame that her regard for Bach’s musical masterpiece and her intention in choosing it never emerged clearly. Though my guest deemed her performance courageous, it struck me as thoroughly indulgent. She seemed to be thinking on her feet, trying out movement in order to shape it, eventually, into a finished work. Long before the end, the dexterity and subtle grace of Kolesnikov’s hands on the keyboard had become far more interesting to watch.

My thanks to the readers who have enjoyed my work in the Dancing Times for many years. I’ll be writing regularly here, to which you can subscribe for free. I hope you will enjoy those pieces too.

Photographs by Anne Van Aerschot.

Barbara Newman’s books about ballet include Grace under Pressure; The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories for children; a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance, and its follow-up, Never Far from Dancing. She has written for Dancing Times since 1984 and served as the dance critic for Country Life from 1990 to 2016. She archives all her work at

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