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A Cellist’s Challenge: Playing Bach, Surrounded by Twisting Bodies

In a phone conversation, he spoke admiringly of Ms. De Keersmaeker’s deep understanding of music and described how she had peppered him with questions about the work’s harmonic structure and asked him to record just the spectral bass lines that underpin each movement. Now that they had begun performing the work, Mr. Queyras said that increasingly “there is this chamber-music quality happening: They react to a timing of mine in the music and I react to what they do.”

As an example, he cited the penultimate movements of each suite, in which Ms. De Keersmaeker had dancers pace out the bass line. “They almost don’t dance anymore,” Mr. Queyras said. “And I have been going as far as possible toward inhabiting this movement. I am beginning to feel I am their dancing partner.”

While I had been able to identify some instances in which the choreography mirrored the music — a twisting body in the first suite, for instance, that matched the way the cello’s arpeggios pivoted around a fulcrum note — I told Mr. Queyras there were other moments when I felt the movement was flatly at odds with his playing. Several times the cello expressively landed on a movement’s final note in ways that spoke of comfort or resignation, while the partnering dancer stopped with one sneaker-clad foot hovering in the air. To me, so much of the pathos of Bach’s music lies in the way it gracefully or reluctantly bends toward the inevitable; this choreography remained uncommitted.

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“It’s a recurrent theme with my students that music has to be more in your body,” Mr. Queyras said. “It cannot be just in your head.”

Credit
Anne Van Aerschot

“When we had the first rehearsals of some piece,” he said, “I would be intrigued by some of Anne Teresa’s choices.” He cited a different example, of Ms. De Keersmaeker’s counterintuitive reaction to the upbeat-downbeat opening salvo that begins each Courante section: “She is asking the dancers to jump in the air on the downbeat and fall to earth on the second. At first I thought, oops. But then I started to see what she was doing and I ended up loving it. And I adapt my playing to it.”

Although Mr. Queyras has no dance training, the physicality of music is important to him. He said that, in his teaching at the music academy in Freiburg, Germany, “it’s a recurrent theme with my students that music has to be more in your body. It cannot be just in your head. I do ask them to get on their feet and perform the move from beat one to two in a Sarabande to get a feeling of how sensuous it is.”

Enduring the marathon performances — this is the first time Mr. Queyras has played all six suites in one go, without intermission — is another matter. “It has the quality of extreme sport,” he said, noting that he feels the exertion in his arms and shoulders afterward.

In the latter part of the show, beginning with the fifth suite, there are breaks built in, when the dancers perform in silence. Mr. Queyras said that feature arose not just from his need for a rest, but, more important, to allow the music to take a breather, too.

“The true depth and power of music is derived at the point in your performance where you touch the infinite, which is silence,” he said. “In order for the listener to go into the third dimension of music, the depth of it, you need silence. You cannot do this with notes coming at you for two hours.”

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