Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, the last movement of his Quartet No. 13 in B flat major, has long divided opinion. Written while he was profoundly deaf, the double fugue is known for its unrelenting intensity and occupation of extremes. Composer and violinist Louis Spohr once described it as “an indecipherable, uncorrected horror”, while Stravinsky predicted that it would forever remain contemporary.
In Three Great Fugues, a triple dance program performed by the Ballet de l’Opéra de Lyon, this plurality of opinions is not the problem, but the answer. Three different interpretations of the infamous fugue by three leading female choreographers were arranged in one evening program. It is a thrilling series that highlights the genius of the composer and the choreographer; where equally sophisticated systems are expressed through different mediums.
G by Lucinda ChildsRande Fugue. Photography © Bertrand Stofleth
American choreographer Lucinda Childs opens the evening with her “sparse ballet” for six couples dressed in grey, originally created in 2016. The movement – classically academic, dotted with arabesques and sissonnes along strong diagonals – unfolds in short looped sentences. This mirrors the subject of Beethoven’s fugue, which, like the dance, is repeated with progressive variations.
Accumulation and following the rules are just two of Childs’ postmodern tools that work well with the rigidity of the fugal structure. Repetition is also essential; the same material over and over again. The layering of movements, typical of the work of Childs (and his Judson Church contemporaries), creates a tidal effect, revealing the spectacle over time.
It also allows us to see the increasing effort required to execute each repeated movement. Although the academic form becomes a little too revealing for the dancers towards the end of the work, the attempt offers a convincing physical embodiment of Beethoven’s fervor.
The second work is a 1992 interpretation by Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. Framed by two long boards of blond wood and rows of suspensions, a set of eight dressed in costumes evoke a whirlwind of fantastic dances.
Again, there is a basic phrase from which deviations and flourishes erupt. Again and again, the dancers collapse in a roll to the floor and then leap to their feet with renewed vigor. It’s an effortless loop framed by Jerome Robbins hidden jumps, fast staggered turns and American low swings.
The dancers spin around the edges of the space, dividing into solos, duets, trios, etc., to interrupt each other’s phrases or synchronize in unison. The phrases wrap and penetrate each other at breakneck speed, urging the audience to follow.
De Keersmaeker’s choreography is extremely clever. It allows us to hear (and see) details in music that most untrained ears cannot detect. The dancers, too, skillfully balance precision and abandon, carrying the audience with them on the sonic rollercoaster.
At Maguy Marin Big Fugue. Photography © Bertrand Stofleth
The program is completed by the 2001 version by French choreographer Maguy Marin for four women. Dressed in red tops and skirts, the dancers burst onto the stage to declare their presence as the four voices of the quartet.
Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge opens with almost five minutes of continuous fortissimo music – the strongest dynamic – and this intensity is palpable in Marin’s opening sequence. Heads are thrown back, fists are swung, legs jump and gallop. The women seem to draw their energy from the earth; of each of them; by Beethoven.
Although loose in form, the work is no less technical or precise in its physical demands or composition. The choreography is richly detailed, giving the women each a distinct voice but uniting them in rhythm. As the work builds, exhaustion appears, but not a sense of defeat. The dancers match the intensity of the score, as if their own quartet of bodies were producing the sound.
There are structural similarities in the three works, but great tonal differences. Reading Beethoven’s music through the bodies of the talented and compelling performers of the Lyon Opera Ballet is exhilarating and invites a new appreciation for the marriage of music and dance.