Trois Grande Fugues | Lyon Opera BalletPhotos – Bertrand Stofleth

An evening when three different ballets are danced to a single score is a remarkable event. When that score is the inscrutable, un-danceable-to score that is Beethoven’s string quartet “Grosse Fuge” op 133, it becomes extraordinary.

It is hardly credible that these three creations, all choreographed by female choreographers, were conceived at different times, in different places, quite independently of each other; but that is what we are told. The result is confronting to say the least. In the first place, music less entertaining than the Grosse Fuge has yet to be written – the score is an inconceivable struggle, with absolutely no compromise, and is so exceptional even in Beethoven’s generally uncompromising oeuvre that, having intended it as the finale to an already long quartet, (the Bb major op 130) Beethoven was persuaded to publish it separately and write a much tamer finale for that quartet.

The fugue is in three sections, preceded by a deeply enigmatic introduction. The first section is fortissimo for 5 minutes, the instruments screaming at each other as if trying to bluster their way out of the impossibilities generated by the fugue subject and its counter-subject. There is a beautiful but brief slower section, followed by a long final section even more complex than the first, though not as unrelievedly loud, that takes the work to its conclusion. Did I say conclusion? One is not convinced.

The first version on the program to be danced, though the last to be created, was a very classically presented dance for 6 women and 6 men, dressed equally in body-fitting, grey costumes. It was choreographed by Lucinda Childs. This version followed with great care the architecture of the Beethoven quartet, elucidating its structure in a way I found made it easier to follow this difficult score. It tempered the extremes of the music by finding space for it, with classical ballet gestures that were somehow transparent, enabling the audience to concentrate on the big picture of both the music and the dance itself. The quartet was played with great strength, if perhaps a little ponderously, in a version for string orchestra, by the Lyon Opera Orchestra. It was conducted by Bernhard Kontarsky in a thoughtful, persuasive interpretation which Childs developed with restrained passion.

The second version, choreographed by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, was the earliest to be created, and to my mind the least successful. The music was played by the Debussy Quartet, in which the first violin played consistently too loud (forgivable) and too sharp (unforgivable). I found that my attention was constantly being diverted by this unbalanced and sometimes unpleasant recording. The ballet itself was performed by 6 men and one woman, who were dressed as for a corporate board meeting, and I could find nothing in their presentation that reflected the music at all. This may not have been everyone’s impression – I am not well versed in the subtleties of ballet performance – but my impression stood in marked contrast to my understanding of the other two performances.

The final version, by Maguy Marin, was in some ways the most ambitious. Here four female dancers took the stage, and each danced to one instrument within the string quartet, changing instruments, as it were, after each passage where the instruments played in unison or in tutti. They were dressed in bright, menstrual red, and they expressed the anguish of so much of the music in what seemed to me very female terms – hysteria, the pain of child-birth – in a series of bodily movements which involved such gestures as throwing back their hair (long for three of the dancers) and then suddenly straightening up. This sense of struggle captured an essential element of the music’s passion, I thought, more trenchantly than either of the others. It was difficult to follow, in tandem with the music, but well worth the effort. The music was played by the Quartet Italiano, in what was by far the most musically satisfying of the three recordings.

I am a musician, not a ballet specialist, but my prevailing impression was that the idea of presenting all these disparate ballets, to different performances of the same score, suited Beethoven’s quartet in one very important respect. The space between the performances, because they all inhabited completely different interpretative domains, gave the audience a glimpse into the vast abyss into which Beethoven was gazing when he wrote the Grosse Fuge, a mountain with many opposing faces.

2020 Adelaide Festival
Trois Grande Fugues
Lyon Opera Ballet

Venue: Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre SA
Dates: 6 – 7 March 2020



Related Articles

Blithe Spirit | University of AdelaideTheatre Guild Blithe Spirit | University of AdelaideTheatre Guild
There are multitudinous shows, concerts, plays and other performances that have been significantly stuffed around and/or cancelled because of Covid.  There are multitudinous shows, concerts,...
The Appleton Ladies' Potato Race | State Theatre Company South Australia The Appleton Ladies' Potato Race | State Theatre Company South Australia
There's something special about Aussie rural country towns. They all share some characteristics but they also each have their own treasured, unique traditions and private aspirations for their future...