Johann Sebastian Bach didn’t write music for dance, but George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp and countless other choreographers have set works to some of his most glorious compositions. In 2018, Atlanta Ballet performed Helgi Tomasson’s 7 for Eight in its Bach to Broadway program. Now we can add Atlanta’s George Staib to the list. He’s creating a work to the composer’s Cello Suite #1 in G major as part of the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra’s festival, Bach in Motion, at the Ambient+Studio at 7:30 p.m. Friday (June 4) and 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday (June 5). Saturday night’s program will be livestreamed.
Chairs will be arranged in socially distanced pods, and attendees must wear masks. Julie Andrijeski, the orchestra’s artistic director and concertmaster, is hoping audiences will be COVID-comfortable enough to stay for the a champagne reception after Friday’s performance.
Staib is approaching Bach in a wildly unique way. He doesn’t want to mimic the Taylors and Tharps of the world, but he’s not going back to the 1700s for inspiration. The cello suite is a popular choice for weddings, but romance isn’t his motivation either. “We are working with the idea of hard surfaces crashing into each other, creating a dangerous environment,” he says. “I want to explore whether a whisper is as powerful as a rock.” Cravasse 5.0 features three dancers from staibdance. Andrijeski, who is a dancer as well as a musician, will accompany them on the viola. She has wanted to present a festival like this for a long time and says Cravasse 5.0 marks the beginning of a major collaboration between her orchestra and staibdance.
The polar opposite to Staib’s tradition-smashing approach is Paige Whitley-Bauguess’ meticulous focus on history. Well-known in the world of historical dance, she is director of the Baroque Arts Project with Barry Bauguess, and has stage directed baroque opera and theater for numerous festivals and university programs. She frequently teaches musicians to give them a deeper understanding of Bach’s dance rhythms.
She will dance to Bach’s Partita #3 in E major dressed elegantly in period costume and custom-made shoes. The rhythm and flow of many Bach compositions are perfect for dance, she says. Five of the partita’s six movements are named after dances of the period — loure, gavotte, minuet, bourée and gigue. Sometimes Whitley-Bauguess finds notations of choreography from the early 18th century that she brings to life. Other times she draws on movement vocabulary from the period and creates new dances in the spirit of Bach’s time. Evan Few, Atlanta Baroque Orchestra’s associate concertmaster, will accompany her on violin.
Combining both historical and contemporary dance forms is New York dancer-choreographer Julia Bengtsson who, with Andrijeski and cellist Stephanie Winters, created the Bach Cello Suites Festival. Winters won’t be here in person, however. She’s in Denmark, unable to travel to the United States because she’s not vaccinated. In an unusual stroke of COVID genius, she has created a video of herself playing Bach’s Fifth Cello Suite, which will accompany Bengtsson as she dances live.
Their collaboration will illuminate the life and emotions of Bach’s wife and copyist Anna Magdalena Bach, a successful professional singer who gave up her career at one point to follow her husband in his. “The thought of facing as many struggles as she did, the loss of several children (she gave birth to 13) and eventually the trauma of being left impoverished after her husband’s death, without the comfort that creativity provides, is unbearable to me,” says Bengtsson. Her choreography combines baroque and contemporary movement structures. “It’s a metaphor for how Bach’s music challenged expectation and convention.”
Andrijeski, now in her 10th year leading the orchestra, believes that incorporating dance into a program keeps Bach’s music alive, joyful and relevant for today’s audiences. “I like to say that baroque dance is music in 3-D.”