Bach Suite, Nureyev's Choreography
Music : Jean-Sébastien Bach - Choreography : Rudolf Nureyev, new work in collaboration with Francine Lancelot - 1984 - Paris Opéra
Solo for Rudolf Nureyev. Choreography by Francine Lancelot and Rudolf Nureyev - Creation staged on the 26th April 1984 in the Champs Elysées Theatre as one of the shows performed by the Paris Opera Ballet.
In 1983, the year he took over as director of the Paris Ballet Opera, Nureyev attended the showing of the Baroque ballet “Rameau l’enchanteur” performed in Versailles by the French Ris et Danceries Ballet Company, and featuring the outstanding, leading dancer Wilfride Piollet.
This show was an eye-opener for Rudolf Nureyev, long interested in old dances since his time spent in Leningrad. Captivated by the work of choreographer, Francine Lancelot, and perhaps influenced by the prestige of the three-hundred year old institution for which he had just become responsible (founded by Louis XIV in 1669, as the emblem above the Palais Garnier stage curtain reminded him) the dancer wanted to test his measure against an old genre which was as new to him as it was to most of the French people. It was Francine Lancelot who rediscovered and revived the “Belle Danse”, but Nureyev was no stranger to its official recognition as it was he who included it in the Opera’s repertoire.
After having seen “Rameau l’enchanteur”, he asked Francine Lancelot to devise him a solo using Bach’s Suite No.3 in C major for cello; Bach, whose “Inventions” he played regularly on harpsichord or on piano, was his favourite musician. This was no mean task for the choreographer, specialist as she was in French ballet with Bach being German!
“No Baroque ballets were devised for this music. It was Rameau that counted, Bach was unknown in France” Francine Lancelot told Marcelle Michel from “Le Monde” at the time. “Consequently, I had to construct the steps and enchainements using existing vocabulary”.
“I am astounded by the way in which, working by imitation and without notation, Nureyev assimilates such complicated enchainements. He acquired the natural arm movements and gesture sense instinctively. If I show him that the ornamentation is correct before the note, he understands and reacts instantly. After only a few rehearsals, he has practically abandoned force in favour of gracefulness. Generally speaking, he puts enormous energy into things instead of trusting in his sensibility; but he is an overly gifted dancer whereas I am but the architect” (article quoted in “Rudolf Nureyev in Paris”, the programme book designed by the staff of the Paris Opera and edited by La Martinière on the occasion of the gala held on the 20th January 2003 in the Palais Garnier to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the death of Rudolf Nureyev).
Francine Lancelot drew her inspiration for the choreography in “Bach Suite” from the reference manual: “Dancing Master” published in 1725 by Pierre Rameau, Ballet master and theorist (1674-1748) not to be confused with Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) famous composer of the “Indes Galantes”. In his thesis which, incidentally, was written at the same time as Bach’s Suites, Pierre Rameau explains in detail how to execute the steps of forty or so dances performed during the age of Louis XIV at court balls and Opera ballets. Photographs of rehearsals for “Bach-Suite” printed in the programme for the 1983 creation leave no room for doubt about this, the engravings of Pierre Rameau’s work being set side by side with attitudes of Nureyev at work.
“The Baroque style, continued the choreographer, unites a Cartesian logic (construction of space and harmony of the dancer’s body) with an extremely refined and unobtrusive sensuality providing a transposition of passions, more real than nature itself. In his thesis “Dancing Master” Pierre Rameau reiterates “the importance of knowing how to position the body in a graceful pose…”. It is quite a complex art: although the dance did not require enormous muscular strength and did not demand performance, it did require a certain concentrated effort to co-ordinate arm and feet movement”. A work of memorization so difficult that, according to Francine Lancelot, Nureyev, sick with nerves, trembled like a leaf during the first rehearsals.
The Suite, based on dances from the working class as well as the nobility, was codified in the seventeenth century and is made up of pieces in the same tonality, alternating lively and slow movements. Thus, Bach’s Suite No.3 in C major for cello chosen by Nureyev comprises the following six movements:
- PRELUDE, instrumental piece which was originally free-style.
- ALLEMANDE, majestic dance in four-four time.
- COURANTE, fast dance imported from Italy.
- SARABANDE, noble, solemn dance of Spanish origin. Extremely expressive, it was only danced in the theatre by soloists.
- BOURREE, with its lively, popular style.
- GIGUE, fast dance with a triple time rhythm; only performed in the theatre.
“But this “Suite” is not just a reconstitution” specified Francine Lancelot again in her interview with “Le Monde”. “Nureyev was involved in devising the choreography for it. Each piece changed in style as he performed it; he either developed the Baroque character, or departed from it depending on his inspiration. For instance, in the Sarabande he moved his hips out of line and performed the movements virtually in the style of Martha Graham.
Certain would call this heresy, but it did not shock me. Even in the time of Jean-Philippe Rameau, dancers, such as Misses Sallé or Noverre, tried to go beyond the rigour of the steps in their performance so as to be natural and customize their ballet. Likewise, in “Rameau l’enchanteur” I took liberties so as to adapt the Baroque world to current day sensitivity”. It was without doubt this dual feature, of reconstitution and of creation that appealed to Nureyev.
The choreographer devised about fifty percent of the dances. She established the most authentic of basic steps suited to Bach’s music, and then Nureyev developed each piece in line with his intuition.
After having given ten performances in Paris, Rudolf Nureyev danced “Bach-Suite” in Zurich, Philadelphia, Frankfurt, Spoleto, Edinburgh (1985), Vienna (1986) and - apparently for the last time - in Montpellier in June 1987.
Also at this time Rudolf Nureyev had included in his repertoire another Baroque creation that he had commissioned from Francine Lancelot for the Paris Opera Ballet: “Quelques pas graves de Baptiste” based on the music from various operas by Jean-Baptise Lully. Francine Lancelot together with Catherine Kintzler had devised a mythological argument as well as taking inspiration from “Dancing Master” by Pierre Rameau notably for the Courante, Louis XIV’s favourite dance.
The world premier of “Quelques pas graves de Baptiste” was performed on the 2nd May 1985 at the Palais Garnier in costumes by Patrice Bigel, under the musical direction of Jean-Claude Malgoire. Jean Guizerix played the part of Héros by the sides of Wilfride Piollet as Nymphe and Rudolf Nureyev who was outstanding in his role of Amour. “Quelques pas graves de Baptiste” was put on with a new production of “Giselle” restaged by Mary Skeaping. Rudolf Nureyev was notably to dance the role of Amour on the 22nd May 1985 during a memorable evening where Monique Loudières and Mikhaïl Barychnikov performed “Giselle” in the second half. Nureyev also played the part of Amour on tour with the Opera Ballet in Orléans and Nimes, in the Sorbonne Amphitheatre and in the New York Metropolitan Opera in July 1986.
Director Jean-Marie Villégier, filled with enthusiasm for the art and culture of Francine Lancelot, invited the choreographer to be involved in the creation of “Atys” by Lully with the French Ris et Danceries Ballet Company in January 1987 at the Opera Comique; a production which was to know worldwide success and to finally establish Francine Lancelot’s reputation. Taking advantage of the presence of the French Ris et Danseries Ballet Company at the Opera Comique, Rudolf Nureyev was in alternate performances of the opera “Un Bal à la cour de Louis XIV” by Lully, Francine Lancelot’s homage to Louis-Guillaume Pécour and Baroque ballet or “Belle Danse”.
Following Nureyev’s departure, this noble genre disappeared from the Paris Opera repertoire.
Photo : Bach Suite 6th June 1984 Suzanne Richelle Whitehead