Suite for Seven (2010)
“Suite for Seven” is an original dance set to Bach’s English Suite No. 5 in E Minor. The choreography takes as its inspiration not only Bach’s musical style and form, but also the Baroque dance types which Bach’s suite features. These include an opening Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Passepied, and Gigue.
Choreography: Sarah Hixon
Music: English Suite No. 5, J. S. Bach
Lighting: J Lillian Gray
The opening Prelude presents both a musical motif for Bach’s entire suite and also demonstrates the dance phrases upon which the rest of the choreography is based. The movement you see in this clip will be used in many different ways throughout each section of the dance.
While Bach’s opening Prelude does not indicate a specific Baroque dance type, the choreography imitates the larger form of the work. Within the Prelude we see the order of the dances to come. Duet is followed by quartet, followed by solo, followed by trio and so on.
Bach’s Prelude is more fugue-like than dance-like, and the choreography reflects this intricacy with complex canons and spatial formations.
By the time Bach composed this suite, about 1715, the Allemande dance had fallen out of fashion in European court ballrooms. Musical compositions for allemandes of this time period had no particular recurring rhythmic patterns, and only one notated choreography of an allemande survives from 1702.
French court dances of this period were performed by 2 dancers, or one couple, at a time. Intricate and decorative spatial patterns were important to the choreography, and you will see a direct imitation of this in the opening of the Allemande.
The one distinctive characteristic of the Allemande dance is the unusual connected hand position. “Allemande” is French for “German,” which leads scholars to believe that the unusual hand position may have originated from a German folk dance and was adopted by the French for use in the ballroom.
The courante was considered the grandest of all dance types by the French court, and it was the favorite dance of King Louis XIV. It gained popularity as early as the seventeenth century, and was often described by period sources as “solemn,” “noble,” and “majestic.” It is the slowest of all Baroque dance types, with 3 beats to the measure. However, period sources sometimes describe the music as “fast” – most likely referring to the quick movement of the notes within the slow triple.
Bach’s courante in this particular English Suite is something of a “tour de force” – the contrapuntal techniques, pedal point, and clear rhythmic patterns of the music offer an insistent and exuberant dance. The choreography uses simultaneous canons and layering to give the dance a playful quality, almost like a game of chase.
Period descriptions of the Sarabande dance indicate that it was calm, serious, tender, and often melancholy. Musically, it emphasizes a sustained second beat, and period choreography complements this with many balancing steps, slow but elaborate leg gestures, and sustained turns or falls which create a suspension and release of momentum. These characteristics are evident here through sensual, controlled, and sometimes introspective gestures and movements.
In this piece, the dancer also wears a mask. This was a common practice in theatrical performances of the Baroque era. Originally, the mask allowed a performer to always have an expression of calm nobility while dancing. In modern use, it can create a strange and otherworldly effect. In both cases, the use of the mask places an emphasis on the dancing body, as it alone is capable of expression.
The Passepied, translated as “passing feet,” is one of the quickest and liveliest of the Baroque dances. It has often been described as a fast minuet, but is more rhythmically varied.
In character, it is described as “cheerful,” “playful,” and “flirtatious.” Johann Mattheson, a contemporary of Bach’s, even described it as frivolous or fickle. He wrote, “… it has a kind of frivolity or foolishness which does not have anything detestable or unpleasant about it… just as many a female who, though she is a little inconstant, nevertheless does not therewith lose her charm.”
The suite concludes with Bach’s effortless but relentless Gigue, a three-part fugue with an inverted subject in the second strain. The choreography uses elements and phrases of all the previous sections to create a final summation of the piece. These dance phrases are embellished and altered to reflect Bach’s complex syncopated rhythms.
Adhering closely to the form of the music, dancers enter in vertical lines matching the voice entrances of the fugue, and recalling the vertical line of the Prelude. The second half of Bach’s gigue presents the subject of the first half literally upside down. In response, the dancers perform the original opening of the gigue, but in reverse. The piece, true to the Baroque style of a gigue, is fast, lively, and exciting!
Reflecting the common practice of Baroque dance, this work concludes with a ceremonious bow, graciously acknowledging the audience.