Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s works have often been labelled both challenging and compelling, both brainy and dramatic. Yet the surprisingly straightforward Six Brandenburg Concertos (her fifth piece to music by J.S. Bach, aptly premiered in Berlin) proves to be – until its jaw-dropping final scenes – an uneven and at times laborious take on one of Bach’s most luminous œuvres. Led from the pit by B’Rock Orchestra conducted by Amandine Beyer (already present on stage in De Keersmaeker’s Partita 2), the work is rigorously divided into six parts, separated by silent interludes. The feel is methodical, as if De Keersmaeker’s workbooks have been voluntarily left wide open.
The piece opens with sixteen dancers, in black against the pastel-lit stage, solemnly marching back and forth on the bass line of the First Concerto. Suddenly the minuet pace breaks, each dancer now embodying an instrument, a chord progression: notes turn into twists and cursory stumbles, arpeggios into gracious twirls with arms aloft. Vibrant solos and odd polyphonic scenes ensue and, rather randomly, a leashed dog appears on stage to the sounds of hunting horns. This piece does not want you to crack any codes, but instead simply flows nonchalantly through zigzags and circular step patterns, skilfully illustrating the harmonies of each concerto. Short pauses between them are stamped with memorable shadowy solos reminiscent of De Keersmaeker’s earlier works, and gently build the show towards its catharsis.
The Fifth Concerto’s unabated virtuosity swiftly explodes the otherwise arduous display of controlled refinement: Thomas Vantuycom’s unfeigned solo to the harpischord cadenza, coming right after three other dancers’ violin-fuelled dramatic whirlwind, leaves the audience breathless. De Keersmaeker reaches dizzying heights in the last scenes, when the sixteen dancers reinvent the marching progression from the First Concerto in the dazzling finale, shortly before rushing off stage – and suddenly, her edifying method gains all its significance, and all its emotional force.