Experiencing different ways of attaching dance to the same music is the central fascinating inquiry into innovative creativity that the Lyon Opera Ballet's Sadler's Wells programme offers.  Here are three choreographic interpretations, each made by a contemporary choreographer, to a trio of different recordings of the same work. First performed in 1826, Beethoven’s Die Grosse Fugue, is a composition in one movement, written at the end of the composer’s life, when he was already profoundly deaf. 

Trois Grandes Fugues (Lucinda Childs) © Bernard Stofleth
Trois Grandes Fugues (Lucinda Childs)
© Bernard Stofleth

The first of these interpretations was the only one to be made on Lyon Opera Ballet, American choreographer Lucinda Childs being invited by artistic director Yorgos Loukos to throw her hat into the ring with Grande Fugue, a work for six mixed couples to a score recorded by the Lyon Opera Orchestra.  

This work was the most theatrical of the trio, with an enclosed cloister, set back, to the left, at the rear of the stage, decorated with busy art nouveau patterns, and performed in elegant costumes: all design and lighting created by Childs' long-term partner, Dominique Drillot. The cloister, which suggests a “sin-bin” for naughty dancers, reflects the baroque influences in the music. The various motifs in the fugue are picked up in simple, random, individual movements that reflect the chaotic, often dissonant musical structure. It’s a complex work that Childs delivers with shifting layers of intensity, providing a diversity of rolling solos and duets, equally allocated amongst her dozen dancers.

The middle work, Die Grosse Fugue, was originally created by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, in 1992, and brought to Lyon Opera Ballet, in 2006. Her piece rattles along (it’s credited as being a minute shorter than the other pair) to a recording by the Debussy Quartet; using eight dancers (six guys and two women), all wearing business menswear (two-piece suits and white shirts).   The choreographer mixes frenetic, gestural action to reflect the counterpoint in Beethoven’s music, but also provides moments of stillness, such as when her dancers confront the audience in a posed tableau on the edge of the stage.  It’s a deliberately masculine work that seems to defy the classical music instead of working with it.

The concluding panel of the triptych was Maguy Marin’s Grosse Fugue, which was created in 2001 and came to Lyon Opera Ballet, in 2006, specifically to be performed alongside de Keersmaeker’s work. In an interesting mathematical synergy, the number of performers is again reduced by four, with just a quartet of women (Jacqueline Bâby, Coralie Levieux, Graziella Lorriaux and Elsa Monguillot de Mirman) holding sway with Beethoven’s unpredictable outpouring of despair and exhilaration. 

Dressed in various shades of red, the women dance as if the music is inside them, pulsating through their muscles like electronic waves. Their nineteen minutes are a whirlwind of constant activity and this is the work that seems to ride the music with the greatest synergy; but, perhaps that is helped by a growing familiarity with Die Grosse Fugue (this recording being by the Italiano Quartet); and not least because of these four charismatic performers.   

This experiment of showing three works back-to-back, choreographed many years apart to the same complex music, clearly demonstrates the immense power of dance since these were clearly three very different variations created in connection to the same source. And, one could add to the mix Hans van Manen’s highly masculine Grosse Fugue, from 1971.  [It’s also worth noting that van Manen’s masterpiece, Adagio Hammerklavier, is another dance to Beethoven].     

But, as the late River Phoenix opines, in the character of Danny Pope, during the 1988 film Running on Empty, there is another assertion to tackle. “You can’t dance to Beethoven…” Pope tells his teacher when asked to differentiate between the composer and a Madonna-style music track. It’s an assertion picked up and given intellectual muscle by Stephen Fry in a pithy blog, published on his website, a decade or so, ago. In the film, Pope was talking about freestyle, clubbing dance; but, Fry extended the discussion into classical dance. He acknowledged that most classical music, in some way, derives from a form of dance; but roundly agreed that “you can’t dance to Beethoven”, arguing that, “…time signatures change and shift, there is no back beat, what dance rhythms there might be are played with in such a fashion as to discourage a tapping foot”.

It is certainly true that Beethoven is comparatively little evident as a composer of works that are danced, either in ballet or contemporary forms; but here are three arresting attempts to choreograph movement to his most challenging  work. Far be it for me to disagree with Stephen Fry, but, if this programme proves anything, it is that you can definitely dance to Beethoven and in so many different ways.