The undiluted perfection of Jean-Guihen Queyras’s playing commands the stage, so it doesn’t matter where he’s placed: a lone cellist on the huge, open Sadler’s Wells stage, sitting on a stool with his back to the audience. Into this intense musical odyssey of Bach’s six cello suites that he interprets, rarely heard back to back, enters Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker with four dancers from Rosas. No stranger to working with Bach and renowned for her strong musical sensibility, she presents us with complex interventions between choreography and Bach’s score. What unfolds over the next two hours is an extraordinary conversation between musician and dancers.

Sometimes the bodies seem to absorb the music so much that they become possessed by it. At other times they seem to challenge Bach’s machinations while there are also moments of complete symbiosis. But ultimately both art forms exist without hierarchy. Bach6Cellosuiten is a cool, abstract work but the intricate patterns and character of each suite and corresponding choreography creates an ever-fluctuating emotional landscape. There are welcome theatrical interludes, such as De Keersmaker’s signing to the audience as she introduces each cello suite, or exchanged glances between the performers, a twitch of an eye brow or slight utterance from the lips as they tussle with the music, encounter each other or face the audience.

De Keersmaeker is a matriarchal figure and very present throughout. She’s an MC introducing each cello suite; a technician helping each dancer mark out floor patterns with tape or moving Queyras’s stool; and a dancer. When she partners the three muscular men, Michael Pomero, Julien Monty and Bostjan Antoncic and the sinuous Marie Goudot, you definitely feel the respect from each, hinted at in the careful and slightly restrained manner in which they move around her. Their robust, wide reaching physicality and athletic suppleness contrasts with her delicate brittleness and measured range of movement.  What’s also fascinating is that dancers and choreographer rarely make contact, and when they do it is very light and almost awkward – the occasional brushing of limbs, light support given by Antoncic or the hovering of a hand over Goudot’s hand when De Keersmaeker is dancing with her. She relates to both men and woman as an older mother to grown up children, or a professor to her graduates; a mixture of supportive and teacherly.

The physical language exposes a gestural linearity: limbs or fingers point into space, directing movement across up or downstage. Movement also builds on and clashes with the personality of each piece of music. For example the increasing crescendo in Queyras’s playing is developed further by Pomero in a sequence of large hip-twisting leaps, while Antoncic at the beginning of the fourth suite falls repeatedly to the ground in a repetitive cycle of fast, hip hop lunges. Sometimes they seem to embody the notes on Bach’s manuscript, at other times they run away with them, extending their meaning through a juxtaposition of shoulder stands, furious floor rolls or running. As the music is both expansive and contained so is the movement, both spatially and technically. Every inch of the stage is covered and the excitement in watching the bodies inhabit that space lies in the precariousness of their risks – will they fall off the stage into the audience or disappear into its recesses. Their proximity to Queyras is also startling at times but one that displays trust and familiarity.

Structurally the choreography mirrors the clarity of the various musical movements. For the first four suites Pomero, Monty, Antoncic and Goudot perform solos, a duet with De Keersmaeker and then when she slips off into the wings, continue alone. Each performer, including the cellist, pushes her or himself to limits, making the music work even harder as they meet it. The precision, attention to detail and stamina of everyone as they power through the non-stopping two hours is impressive.
There are sections of stillness and slowness of course and some of these are the most resonant. After walking across the stage in a phalanx several times to a driving passage of the music, the dancers take rest on the floor, surrounding Queyras as he continues to play, bringing relief from the intensity of the solos. There is also another exquisite visual moment in which Queyras performs alone in half-darkness lit from the side, framed by his enormous shadow on the wall. Joined later by the pensive De Keersmaeker who lingers behind him, moving minimally yet purposefully, they convey a striking tableaux of the connection between two phenomenal artists.

Gallery of pictures by Foteini Christofilopoulou