One ‘pas de trois’

Listening to The Goldberg Variation

One ‘pas de trois’

The Goldberg Variations, a ballet choreographed in 1971 by Jerome Robbins to the work of the same name by Johann Sebastian Bach, finally enters the repertoire of the Paris Opera. For the first time, the pianist Simone Dinnerstein, a renowned Bach specialist, will interpret the work, not in concert but for the ballet. Also for the first time, Laura Hecquet and Mathieu Ganio, Etoiles at the Paris Opera, will dance one of these variations. An encounter with these three performers.

With its opening and closing aria, thirty variations and over ninety minutes of music, this work by Johann Sebastian Bach is a challenge for the performer, - a gruelling experience for the pianist both physically and mentally. “It’s probably one of the longest pieces of solo instrumental music and requires total concentration” explains Simone Dinnerstein. “One has to think of every detail whilst still maintaining a vision of the whole.” For the dancers, the challenge lies elsewhere. When the curtain rises, the spectator is immediately drawn into the music, the steady rhythms gradually lulling the listener into a state of stillness, like the purring of a cat, and the dancer must therefore grab the attention of the audience, counteracting the effect of the rhythmic stability of the music.” Indeed, Jerome Robbins’s choreography exploits each variation as a separate entity, multiplying the choreographic sequences, which are performed by several different groups of dancers. Laura and Mathieu dance in the second part and execute a pas de deux on a rhythmically slow variation – a moment of suspended motion in the ballet, a parenthesis: “We had to create a particular atmosphere and establish it for just a few moments, like a bubble in the middle of the ballet, in contrast with what follows” recounts Mathieu Ganio. Laura Hecquet emphasises the importance of creating a rapport with Bach’s soothing, intimate music: “ It’s one of those moments when you mustn’t shatter the atmosphere - there must be nothing abrupt or precipitated - but still provide contrast with music that is calm and legato.”

Although the dancers are far from baffled by this music, they are conscious that it is slightly different: “We are used to dancing on music adapted to ballet with a score that includes adagios, variations, fouetté etc. Our movements are often defined by clearly identified moods and every movement creates a different colour. In this work by Bach, there is rather a single precise identity all the way through, which we are much less used to.

For Simone Dinnerstein, the parallel between the role of the pianist and the dancers' steps is obvious: “At times, Jerome Robbins’ choreography alternates different groups of dancers and one has the impression that the musical line has taken on a physical reality. When I’m playing, I sometimes watch the dancers and I’m struck by the fact that my hands are doing exactly the same thing as their bodies.”

For a moment, the three interpreters find themselves linked and dependent on each other in their quest for symbiosis, a kind of alchemy not always easy to achieve. As Simone Dinnerstein remarks, Jerome Robbins’ ballet requires particular tempi and changing them would endanger the performance of the dancers. However, “many of these tempi are very different from those I would normally adopt when playing this piece. I have had to learn to play it differently whilst remaining faithful to my own interpretation.” Ultimately, the pianist must sometimes lighten his touch and shorten the breathing places, in order to maintain regularity for the dancers. A new experience, prompting Mathieu Ganio to remark upon a certain paradox: “For pianists used to playing as soloists, it is difficult for them not to be swept along by their emotions. In a way, we stifle them so that we too can express ourselves. Of course, we are constantly listening.” The collaboration between the three is indeed based on listening and Mathieu and Laura are highly sensitive to the minute variations in Simone’s interpretation in order to “play genuinely with the music and almost dance with it.”

Simone Dinnerstein, Mathieu Ganio and Laura Hecquet were interviewed by Solène Souriau

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