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How to Skin a Cat

Posted on August 7, 2018

SE and Andersson Dance Goldberg Variations ternary patterns for insomnia 1 Credit Hugh Carswell 2015

People have been saying “There’s more than one way to skin a cat” since about 1840 but probably not in terms of making dances. Yet as Örjan Andersson’s Goldberg Variations unfolded at the Barbican several weeks ago, only that phrase allowed me to control my irritation and hang onto my objectivity.

It wasn’t easy. Andersson Dance, which consists of five lively dancers, and the Scottish Ensemble, eleven musicians playing only stringed instruments, took the stage together to create, as the work’s subtitle put it, “ternary patterns for insomnia.” “Ternary” means proceeding by threes or having three elements or parts, which I’m guessing refers to the performers’ democratically sharing the space, the movement and the music. The word certainly didn’t apply to any choreographic patterns I could see, nor did those patterns particularly apply to the score’s shifting dynamics and tone.

Children might wriggle, jump, quiver, shake, collapse on top of one another and slap at invisible bugs in response to Bach’s rhythmic inventions, as the dancers did. Athletes might warm up to these well-ordered variations, lifting and manipulating each other in weighty exercises resembling Contact Improvisation, as the dancers did. Stimulated by music, just about anyone might strip completely or fall, face first, onto the pillow he’s holding himself—the dancers did that too.

By the time they reached that point, the musicians had easily captured my attention, which they never relinquished. Watching them in action—passing canons back and forth across the space between them, leaning their bodies into the musical architecture their skills and sensitivity could realize—revealed more of the music’s scope and Bach’s genius than anything Andersson produced.

Above: Andersson Dance and the Scottish Ensemble in Goldberg Variations.

I watched their eyes and alertness; I saw them breathe like a single organism absorbing energy from a single source. The dancing became so inconsequential that anyone might have done it; in fact, the musicians briefly did, laying down their instruments to lay themselves down or bend over or clap their hands enthusiastically.

The two ensembles together made an appealing unit, brimming with choreographic potential, but it takes more than high jinks to do justice to a masterpice like Goldberg Variations. In 1971, Jerome Robbins found another way to skin that cat. Having described the music as “a beautiful marble wall,” he chiseled away at it like a sculptor, drawing the shape, size, character and density of each variation from Bach’s monumental composition. Having said, “The challenge of Goldberg is that it’s thirty variations all in the same key and formally all alike. Yet the possibilities of interpretation are endlessly rich,” he let the music’s rigorous structure guide his imagination to memorable movement.

To honor Robbins on the 100th anniversary of his birth, in its spring season New York City Ballet staged 20 of his pieces and commissioned a new one, Something to Dance About, from Warren Carlyle, who organized excerpts from eight of Robbins’ Broadway shows into a single entity. Alongside Goldberg, which is as striking visually and as exciting emotionally as when it was new, the company revived Robbins’ Les Noces, a hot-blooded interpretation of the score, quite unlike Nijinska’s better-known version and all the more fascinating for its contrasting effect.

Out of context, the musical theatre numbers in Something to Dance About lost their edge, and the dancers performed them without much involvement or evident pleasure. However, that work plus another eight Robbins ballets will feature in the company’s 2018-2019 schedule as the celebration of his astounding creativity continues.

Main: Andersson Dance and the Scottish Ensemble in Goldberg Variations.
Photographs: Hugh Carswell.

Barbara Newman’s books about ballet include Grace under Pressure; The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories for children; a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance, and its follow-up, Never Far from Dancing. She has written for Dancing Times since 1984 and served as the dance critic for Country Life from 1990 to 2016. She archives all her work at

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