They were quite clear from the start. This interpretation of the Goldberg Variations, performed by a string orchestra in sneakers, sharing the stage with dancers, was not about reverence for Bach’s genius. Nor was it about translating his musical intricacies into fleshly form.
What was it about?
“Goldberg Variations — Ternary Patterns for Insomnia” opened at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater on Thursday, and by the end of its 75 minutes, I wasn’t any closer to the answer. There is no theme or organizing principle in this work, unless you count the fact that everyone is dressed in artsy/ordinary anti-chic (jeans, leggings, T-shirts), from the five dancers of the Swedish troupe Andersson Dance to the 11 musicians of the Scottish Ensemble.
The “insomnia” of the title refers to the backstory of the music’s composition, that Bach wrote it to help a suffering patron ease off to sleep. Though the dancing is fitfully engaging and the music is quite beautiful, the performers quickly dispel any notions that this is going to be a soothing, disciplined affair.
Variation No. 1 began with a dancer wiggling vigorously to the violins, playing an air guitar. Cute — and soon too much. But by then the musicians had taken up the shtick. They bobbed and swayed, adorably. No uptight perfectionists here. One violinist sank to his knees, Pete Townshend style.
So it went. At times the dancers threw themselves facedown onto pillows scattered on the stage. For a few unkind minutes, a blinding spotlight shone at the audience. One dancer passed the time with pink pants on his head. Inevitably, another stripped down to his underwear. It often felt like an unconstrained game of free-association. Sometimes the musicians danced and the dancers watched; these were lovely moments because they were not overdone.
Orjan Andersson, director of Andersson Dance, created this work in Stockholm in 2015. He’s not the first choreographer to take inspiration from the Goldberg Variations. Jerome Robbins, who had a special affinity for Bach, incorporated the variations into a profound exploration of classicism. Former Washington Ballet director Septime Webre created an eclectic piece called “State of Wonder” to the variations. Just about a year ago, modern-dance choreographer Pam Tanowitz and acclaimed Bach interpreter Simone Dinnerstein collaborated on a work in which the dancers swarmed around Dinnerstein while she played the Goldberg Variations at a grand piano onstage.
Andersson’s dancers move well, with a spongy, soft quality, but the choreography is not that interesting, and they are outnumbered and overshadowed by the musicians. I was in the happy sway of those strings from start to finish, and no one can convince me that Bach is better on a two-keyboard harpsichord with one pair of hands. But what threw me was the constant interruption of the music. The dancers, of course, can’t keep moving for 75 minutes. Also, they had to reorganize themselves for each variation, which meant pauses every few minutes.
Toward the end, one break stretched on for some time, as the dancers and musicians clustered together, laughing and chatting, turning their backs on us. Given the inscrutable nature of the whole show, this felt as inevitable as the underpants.
Andersson Dance and Scottish Ensemble perform “Goldberg Variations — Ternary Patterns for Insomnia” through Saturday. $29-$89. 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.