How many of us have listened to all six Bach Cello Suites without interruption, performed live? Playing a recording of them is one thing, but few music lovers have witnessed, in real time, the sheer tenacity required to execute this pinnacle of the solo Baroque repertoire. The main reason is simply that most cellists don’t play all six in concert. Apart from, say, Yo-Yo Ma, the majority perform them across two concerts, or in three parts with two intervals. Extraordinarily experimental, the suites turn the concept of monophonic music on its head, thanks to Bach’s multi-voice melodic writing which requires the cellist to sing and characterise several different, interweaving melodies simultaneously. And then there’s the challenge of connecting with the music’s spiritual side, which has led Steven Isserlis to relate the work to the story of Christ: “I played all six in concert a few times,” he told Gramophone in 2007, “but they’re torture.”

Marie Goudot and Jean-Guihen Queyras © Anne Van Aerschot
Marie Goudot and Jean-Guihen Queyras
© Anne Van Aerschot

The opportunity, then, to hear these works in their entirety is just one of several compelling reasons to see Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s 2017 piece Mitten wir im Leben sind (In the midst of Life)/Bach6Cellosuiten, which received its UK premiere at Sadler’s Wells. For the 58-year-old Belgian choreographer’s fourth Bach-based work, created for and in collaboration with her dance company, Rosas, Canadian-born French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras provides the soundtrack. It’s a tireless, commanding performance, in which he explores fully the music’s wide-ranging tonal, dynamic and expressive nuances. But he is no mere accompanist; constantly varying his position on stage in relation to the dancers, his interaction with them ebbing and flowing, Queyras is fundamental to De Keersmaeker’s overall concept – not least in the dramatic Fifth Suite – where he takes to the stage alone, bathed in light, his silhouette projecting onto the adjoining wall. It’s a powerful reminder that, when it comes to dance, live music is indispensable.

Queyras played a key role in the project’s evolution; he took all five dancers (three males, two females, including De Keersmaeker) through the score, bar by bar, highlighting significant key changes and melodic landing points and writing out the ‘hidden’ bass line. This enabled De Keersmaeker to map out core gestures: moving forwards for major keys and backwards for minor ones, slotting a stepping pattern into the bass line – in essence, translating the structure of the music into the human body. At times, her ‘one note, one step’ approach enables us to literally ‘read’ the music through dance. At others, there’s a juxtaposition between what we hear and what we see. Even if it looks spontaneous and improvised, it’s not. “Only when the rules have been set in place,” De Keersmaeker says, “can one truly start to play.”

Rosas and Jean-Guihen Queyras © Anne Van Aerschot
Rosas and Jean-Guihen Queyras
© Anne Van Aerschot

From an audience perspective, we are able simply to marvel at the harmony of music and movement, and the journey through ‘the midst of Life’ this takes us on. On the floor of a pared-back stage, a set of conjoined circles and spirals has been etched. Before each suite, De Keersmaeker and another dancer trace the shape of a pentagram with tape, which they then stick down; as the piece progresses, these pentagrams expand and interlock. We know that, structurally, Bach’s suites follow the same order of dances – Prelude, Allemande, etc – and these geometrical patterns pay homage to that unifying structure; in addition, they provide spatial boundaries for the dancers and invite Queyras into the performing space. But each suite differs in terms of key and mood, thus the first four suites are each assigned to a different dancer, De Keersmaeker announcing each suite with a cryptic hand gesture, fleetingly connecting with that dancer. This highlights each suite’s uniqueness: although the suites possess similar movement vocabularies, each dancer interprets these in contrasting ways.

Jean-Guihen Queyras, Michaël Pomero, Boštjan Antončič and Julien Monty © Anne Van Aerschot
Jean-Guihen Queyras, Michaël Pomero, Boštjan Antončič and Julien Monty
© Anne Van Aerschot

Movement is natural, often reminiscent of an athlete limbering up before a race (an idea reinforced by the casual clothes of dark shorts and t-shirts for the men, and trainers (or, for De Keersmaeker, Converse) for them all. We see hops, skips, jumps, prances, knee bends, one-leg balances, handstands, ‘cat’ stretches, press-ups – all executed with an astonishing combination of precision and abandon. But we also see pivots, pirouettes, tumbles, shoulder shimmies and, at one point, a parody of a courtly dance. This ‘jumble’ of styles is given a sense of cohesion by a recurring motif of ‘clock hands’ – the arms suggesting 3 o’clock or 9 o’clock – often performed by more than one dancer at the same time. One arresting example comes during the Third Suite, when Marie Goudot – lighter than air, mesmerising throughout – and De Keersmaeker hold this position while the cello continues to play; when the cello stops, the dancers begin to move in silence, perfectly in unison. Dance, we are reminded, is inherently musical. But when, as in the Fourth Suite, we see Boštjan Antončič propelled by repeated cello figurations into a swirling vortex, we witness that perfect symbiosis of music and movement referred to in Balanchine’s epithet “See the music, hear the dance”.

It’s only in the Sixth Suite that all five dancers finally come together – and it’s a joyous moment. Even De Keersmaeker, typically taciturn until now, permits herself to smile. Queyras takes centre-stage while the dancers simultaneously look to the past by repeating previous motifs, and to the future by colliding and intertwining, often on the floor, in new, synchronised movements. There’s humour, ‘togetherness’, release. Surely Bach’s music has never been so relevant, and so human.

****1