Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Tetractys - The Art of Fugue, February 15th, 2014, ROH

I went into Wayne McGregor's latest piece, Tetractys - the Art of Fugue - feeling rather confused. I'd planned to do some light background reading in preparation for this performance. This reading turned out to be a lot more difficult that I expected...

As the subtitle suggests, Tetractys is based on Bach's The Art of Fugue. Composed in the last decade of his life, it is considered by many to be Bach's greatest achievement. Consisting of 14 fugues, it is an extremely complex piece  of counterpoint, mirror counterpoint and retrograde counterpoints (and if you want to learn more about this, Radio 3's Early Music Show recently did a really interesting program about it). 

A tetractys
But McGregor dug deeper, unearthing theories concerning geometry, numerology, and the Pythagorean theory of numbers. This is where the idea of the tetractys comes in. A tetractys is a triangular figure consisting of ten points arranged in four rows like a pyramid. It is a mystical symbol that was important in the secret worship of the Pythagoreans. It represents unity, power, harmony and kosmos. This is about where I started to get lost...

Natalia Osipova and Edward Watson
©ROH/Johan Persson
I went into the performance trying to keep open a mind. Watching it, I think I got the general idea of what McGregor was trying to do: The dancers mark the overlapping lines of music; the stage set, consisting of light installations that hang from the ceiling (designed by Tauba Auerbach) serve as a map to the structure of each piece; the gradation of color in the costumes deepens with the increasing volume of the score. McGregor could have spared us the overintellectual talk about mystical symbols, but Tetractys is an intelligent performance of Bach's masterpiece. The choreography, the stage set, the lighting and the costumes all help to break down this complex work in a way that is really insightful. If my interest that day had been in learning more about The Art of Fugue, I would have gotten a lot out of this work. 

But my interest was in dance, and here the work falls short. The dancers of the Royal Ballet were, of course, sublime. However, the choreography did not do them justice. It felt slow, there was little to capture the attention, and not much that stuck in my memory. The worst part was that one is left with the impression that the dancers are interchangeable, which given the stellar cast including Lamb, McRae, Nunez, Osipova, Soares, Underwood and Watson is just wrong!

Paul Kay, Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb
© ROH / Johan Persson 2014
McGregor is quick to emphasis that people should consider the work as an integrated whole. While I agree that without the music, stage set, lighting and costumes even the most stunning choreography would lack impact, I disagree with McGregor's statement that "dance doesn't have to be the priority". When one is going to see the Royal Ballet, I think dance should absolutely be at the first concern!

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