Rumor has it, Bach – that is, Johann Sebastian, the very same musical genius that this publication honors in its name – proposed his Brandenburg Concertos as part of, in contemporary parlance, an application for a job with the Marquess of Brandenburg. As it turned out, the maestro never got paid upon delivery. Could it be because Bach repurposed and remixed himself to a large extent while composing this opus? Or because the court’s musicians were simply not skilled enough to deliver such a complex score? Whatever the case may be, these six concerti were apparently never performed at the Brandenburg court, for reasons that, to this day, remain a mystery.

Fast forward to 2018: at the beginning of his short-lived – and overwhelmingly reviled – tenure as the new artistic director of Volksbühne – Berlin’s historic, revolutionary theater house – Chris Dercon (formerly of Tate Modern fame), announced his commission for the Belgian choreography icon Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker to set the said concerti into motion. Curiously, the six pieces that comprise Bach’s opus for the Brandenburg court – clocking in at just about two hours total – were never intended to take center stage (to quote a musical connoisseur colleague of mine: they were meant to function as “background music” during court parties,) and, all rather alike in their dynamic range, were certainly not intended to be presented in a single sitting; to this day, they rarely are, if ever. But what could possibly go wrong? De Keersmaeker is one of the internationally acclaimed superstars of the contemporary dance world, known for her inquisitive engagement with demanding musical scores. Hence, buoyed by a twenty-three-piece orchestra helmed by Amandine Beyer (B'Rock), a seventeen-person ensemble from De Keersmaeker’s ensemble (Rosas,) and last but not least – unlike Bach – a hefty commission from the Volksbühne, the adventuresome choreographer set off on this experiment, which premiered just last month in Berlin before landing in early October at New York’s Park Avenue Armory, where it had been programmed sight-unseen, riding on the reputation of the awesome stakeholders involved in this production.

So far so good. However, as history would have it, one can indeed have “too much of a good thing.” A concoction of potent ingredients does not always add up to much more than a sum of its parts; and the grand experiment that was to be The Six Brandenburg Concertos, as manifested in the presentation I attended this weekend at the Armory, fell flat on its face – much like one of the dancers, who unfortunately fell whilst speed-racing in circles around Jan Versweyveld’s sparse set. 

Transferring productions that were originally staged in smaller venues to the imposing, jaw-droppingly expansive space of the Park Avenue Armory is no small feat, and productions that work well in more intimate settings often simply cannot compete with the venue’s majestic grandeur. It is a phenomenon I have observed at the Armory with an alarming frequency, and unfortunately, this production is another case in point. The set for The Six Brandenburg Concertos consisted of a large white circular platform surrounded by a bank of pendulums suspended from the ceiling, and a simple white wall as a backdrop. Each of the six sections was introduced with a Brechtian gesture: as the musicians – placed downstage in full view of the audience – tuned their instruments, a performer wearing street clothing (and a bored facial expression) walked center stage with a banner showing the title of each concerto. A procession of performers ensued, varying in size between one section and the next, and engaged in sparse choreography in an apparent attempt to make the music visible; different dancers were “tuned in” to specific instruments, highlighting the orchestration with sparse choreographic means – a succession of simple steps, walks, gestures and runs, meticulously in sync with Bach’s music. Dressed in elegantly minimalistic black clothing, which included a lot of sheer blouses and billowing skirts and coats, the scene may very well have been taken straight off an Antwerp fashion show runway. By the time the first movement came to a close – including a cameo by an adorable canine who pretty much stole the show – I was amused by the apparent simplicity of it all, and I appreciated De Keersmaeker’s effort to counter the customary gravitas of the classical music scene with a light-heartedly irreverent approach. But already in the second concerto, things started going downhill: for one, I would like to think that the section’s “perilously high” (per Encyclopedia Brittanica) trumpet solo was not intended to be delivered so off-key – and if it was indeed intentional, it was an unfortunate decision, as it rendered the entire segment of the show puzzlingly jarring, especially in the context of an otherwise competent musical delivery. By the time the third section rolled along, the monotonousness of sound and movement instilled a feeling of ennui, and with the attendant dread that I was in for more sameness for the remainder of the afternoon. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a huge fan of De Keersmaeker’s work, and much of her recent work that I have seen in New York, and consequently wrote about, such as Vortex Temporum and Cesena (both presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2016 and 2013, respectively) resulted in nothing short of transformative experiences. My expectations were, admittedly, high – which probably exacerbated the disappointment in these poorly rendered Bach concerti. But De Keersmaeker is a tirelessly inventive dance artist, so I remain hopeful more engaging undertakings may be under way in the future.