Jacky Lansley is not the first to choreograph to Bach’s iconic Cello Suites, but her world première Guest Suites represents three years of research and dialogue with the music, strengthened by the contributions of artistic “guests” present at different stages of the work’s development. Joining Lansley in heading this ambitious project was composer Jonathan Eato, who engaged with the suites through his own compositions, inserted between the original Bach Suites.

Jacky Lansley's Guest Suites, © Norman Reid
Jacky Lansley's Guest Suites,
© Norman Reid

Overall the programme had a mosaic quality – which can be attributed in part to the structure of the suites themselves. Lansley and Eato chose to use three of the six suites, which have six movements each. Within this structure, the bulk of the movements were performed live by cellist Audrey Riley. However, four movements were replaced by Eato’s live performance of his compositional inserts, and about one quarter of the remaining movements were historic recordings of Pablo Casals.

The different movements cascaded from one point to the next, though the pauses between each movement allowed each piece to have its own distinct signature – within both the music and the dancing. The audience was presented with a collage built on the commonality of Bach’s music, but there was no presented narrative, aside from the overarching theme of collaboration between the dancers, musician, composer and choreographer.

The atmosphere in the Clore Studio at the Royal Opera house was an intimate setting for Guest Suites. While the music spiralled beautifully from Riley’s bow, the close proximity exposed many beautiful moments, but also an incongruence between the fullness of the music and the confused intent of the dancers. It was as if sometimes the dancers were very clearly connected to an inner sense of understanding and purpose, while at other times the movement lost the easy fluidity and became work.

The core group of dancers, all wearing baggy white and tan clothing, performed the majority of the choreography, which was a mixture of gestural work and very technically challenging movement. The gestures, which had an inherent emotional charge, contrasted with the blank faces of the dancers, giving them a stark and dehumanized air. Additionally the choreography called for the dancers to perform challenging balances and synchronized balletic work, which was meant to be very stark and clean, but any wobble or mistimed step – of which there were a few – was blaringly obvious.

Threading through this core group were Lansley’s “guests,” who gave depth and colour to the piece. Performer Tim Taylor’s open and comfortable presence throughout the show afforded more than a few striking visual images. Belly dancer Hannah Mi glided around the stage to the Gigue from Suite 3, finding Bach’s smooth and sultry notes. And later, Fergus Early, in a fitted suit, danced a playful solo which drew attention straight to his shined and gleaming dress shoes. These guests showcased the diversity of Bach’s music, and by teasing out these different hues, Lansley was able to resist the temptation to rely solely on the music to create a rich landscape.

Along with these guest appearances, Lansley incorporated audience participation, a dance duet between dancer Tim Taylor and cellist Audrey Riley, and a movement devoted entirely just to watching and hearing Riley’s expert playing. While each movement had varying degrees of success, by exploring the limits of the music Lansley was able to keep it interesting.

Without a doubt, Guest Suites would not have held up to Bach’s music without Lansley’s guests. The collage of images presented many sides to the music – whether technical, sensual or celebratory – in an all-inclusive frame that was engaging in its layering. However, the ease and grace of the music was often lacking in the dance, as the performers tried to cling to the smooth surface of Bach’s Cello Suites. But Lansley, Eato and their guests did excel in creating an evening of transitioning musical and visual images that stretch and deepen the perception of Bach’s seminal suites.