Review: When real life adds an unexpected twist to the fugue

The art of the fugue is an additive art, an art of the sequence. In this compositional mode, a theme introduced by a voice is successiv...


The art of the fugue is an additive art, an art of the sequence. In this compositional mode, a theme introduced by a voice is successively taken up by others, overlapping, often in augmented or diminished form. Each new arrival affects what came before it.

Seasoned choreographer Zvi Gotheiner created his “The Art of the Fugue”, partly based on Bach’s composition of that title, earlier this year. His company, ZviDance, filmed a version for Montclair State University’s Peak Performances series. It was a play “by adding our voices together we can still make art during a pandemic”.

But then, at the end of March, Gotheiner, who is also a beloved dance teacher, had a stroke that partially paralyzed the left side of his body.

And when his “Art of Fugue” premiered live – at New York Live Arts on Thursday, with Gotheiner watching in a wheelchair – knowledge of that event, as a late-arriving voice, changed the job. More than before, the dance is part of a fight to keep moving forward, a work of recovery.

It starts in silence, like at the start of a rehearsal, with a few dancers in the middle of folding chairs crafting a phrase or remembering a phrase – hitting a beat, translating it into movement. Gradually the rest of the cast of eight follower members arrive and join us, and soon we see and hear a counterpoint.

When Bach’s first recording is played, the connection is clear. Without strictly reflecting the musical voices, the eclectic choreography mimics the fugitive form. It is very much in tune with Bach’s rhythms, making them resonate with folk dance footwork. Robust, expansive, he does not treat Bach with politeness. He rides the baroque like a bronco.

And there are other voices. Joshua Higgason’s video projections sometimes multiply the image of a soloist, each copy or visual echo delayed so that the solo becomes a round. Other times, the video doubles the blur, in a woozy double vision effect. Often times, the angle of the video comes from the ceiling, creating shifts in perspective that the choreography also plays into: a first section later returns in a different orientation, as if the room had rotated 90 degrees.

This is all interesting, even if some of the video effects seem free (the dancer trapped in a virtual canvas) or just plain weird (a fuzzy donut shape). The truly overwhelming and waning voice is the electronic music that alternates with the Bach, by Gotheiner’s longtime collaborator Scott Killian. With its low growls and jump saw alarms, it sounds like unused pieces from a Hans Zimmer score for “Inception” or “Dune”.

Rather than being different from the choreography, Killian’s score unfortunately matches a quality of unconvincing emotional excess. Even Bach’s sections are loaded with prodigious and heavy gestures, trying too hard to bring out the meaning of Bach’s mathematics. An arrow-like Nat Wilson debut solo is irresistibly schizophrenic, but many more stick out, like the ending, which feels like a 12-step reunion for dancers who have lost their sense of balance.

Thursday, however, that ending wasn’t quite the end. And what happened next was theatrical and over the top and entirely persuasive. During the curtsies, Gotheiner arrived in his wheelchair. In response to a standing ovation from fans and students, he stood up. And walked. And let go of his cane to raise his right arm. It was like something that had not come out of a Bach fugue, but of a Bach mass.

The art of running away

Until Saturday in New York Live Arts in Manhattan; newyorklivearts.org.

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