Written by Alfred Hickling
Published on Monday 23 November 2015
The composition of Bach’s Goldberg Variations will always be mysterious. Were they really a musical sheep-counting exercise for the benefit of an insomniac ambassador? A harmonic exegesis of the Ptolemaic universe? A private joke at the expense of an unkind critic? Or maybe, as this remarkable collaboration between the Scottish Ensemble and Andersson Dance suggests, the roots of acid house?
A fidgety flurry of semi-quavers in the first variation causes one of the dancers to develop a twitch. It becomes infectious, until the whole ensemble – dancers and musicians alike – have broken out their most euphoric club moves. By the end of the sequence, the double bassist is literally running rings round her instrument. It would be pointless if the playing were in any way compromised by such hyperactivity. But the string arrangement, based on Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s trio version of 1985, has a sonority and texture to which the choreography provides astute, visual commentary. Unison lines draw the dancers into strict synchronisation; the canons send a ripple of repeated gestures through the company like a series of electric shocks.
The narrative seemingly develops into the raid of a janitor’s cupboard as mop buckets, trolleys and industrial heaters are wheeled in. A curious instance of wardrobe malfunction finds one of the dancers attempting to pull a pair of gold lamé trousers over her head. But it isn’t all skittish surrealism: the melancholic dip into the minor key at the 15th variation – a line that would not seem out of place in the St Matthew Passion – produces a human pyramid that is reminiscent of painterly representations of the descent from the cross.
For the final quodlibet the double-bass is left abandoned to make an unadorned statement of the spiralling line that contains the DNA of the entire piece. Yet by this point, your head is so full of celestial harmonies that you can practically fill in the gaps for yourself.