Bach, a dancing queen? Probably not the first image that comes to mind when thinking about the great composer. But with Back to Bach the Dutch National Ballet shows that Bach and ballet go together perfectly.

<i>Fantasia</i> © Angela Sterling
© Angela Sterling

Back to Bach is a treat not only for dance but also for Bach lovers, as the only music on the programme is by the iconic composer. The programme is as varied as Bach’s music, that goes from Concerto for oboe and violin in c minor to the Cello suite in D major, and contains one of Bach’s biggest hits, the Aria from his Goldberg Variations. Five choreographers have successfully transposed the heavenly beauty of his music into movement, occasionally making it twice as enchanting. Because Bach makes everything a little more beautiful, including this ballet.

Bach’s music is best captured in dance in the opening piece, In Light and Shadow by choreographer Krzysztof Pastor. The work consists of two parts, the first of which is an small scale duet to the Aria (Goldberg Variations). The eloquence of this piece is expressed by just one man and a woman, accompanied by a piano. Simple ingredients that make for a strong and intimate perfomance.

But there is room for a grandiose feast for the eyes. The entire corps de ballet takes the stage to the joyous Orchestral Suite no. 3 in D major. Soothing colours and one bright red skirt make for a fine image. But the most thrilling are the almost kaleidoscopic patterns that the ensemble creates with movement  in canon. Bach’s music, with its many different voices, particularly lends itself to these choreograohic variations. In general, the Orchestral Suite is especially well suited for dancing, with its gavottes, bourrée and gigue. And then there is the popular 'air – the dance to which was unfortunately less of a hit than the music. With two couples dancing on stage at the same time, one had to divide one’s attention between the two. It did not help that the movement here was rather awkward, with one of the female dancers ducking under the man’s leg and sliding on the ground in a peculiar manner. The final musical movements, however, made up for this, with, as a highlight, a surprising choreography for the feet. Only the lower part of the body was illuminated, drawing one’s attention to complex and varied footwork; think Irish dance goes classical ballet.

<i>Axiom of Choice</i> © Angela Sterling
Axiom of Choice
© Angela Sterling

Seeing ballet danced to Bach’s music in an austere, modern scenery emphasized the fact that his music has passed the test of time. This was particularly noticable in Ernst Meisner’s Axiom of Choice, with set and costume design by Jean-Marc Puissant. Playful blue costumes, lively music (Concerto for oboe and violin in C minor) and perfectly parallel movement made for some particularly powerful dancing. Unfortunately, such moments where the dancers moved this synchronously were relatively scarce. Although it was easily forgiven because of the quality of the dancing itself, it did not go unnoticed, and occasionally gave the impression that the dance was not fully fine-tuned yet.

This pretty much sums up what the complete programme was like: at times a bit sloppy, at times a bit awkward, but with ecstatic peaks, beautiful images for the eye (the most gorgeous one created in Hans van Manen’s Fantasia) and Bach’s music as a comforting, constantly moving factor in both ways.