Baroque dancing in the home of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver – August 6, 2016
Anna Magdalena Songbook – Home Suite Home, presented by Early Music Vancouver as part of the ten-day Vancouver Bach Festival, performs music of Bach’s domestic life. The performance selected thirteen suites from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach – two volumes of small-scale (though no less complex) compositions by Bach and some from his contemporaries – that he gifted to his new wife, Anna Magdalena.
The detailed program notes and preamble given by the musicians and singer before each act set the scene for an evening of song, music and dance that tried to convey what Bach’s jovial household might have been like. It began with an overture for the wedding of Anna Magdalena and Johann Sebastian, followed by Bach’s French suites, a lute sonata composed by Sylvius Leopold Weiss, a polonaise and a rondo by Bach’s sons, Bach’s Italian suites, and ended with a tombeau expressing later life and death. Baroque dancer Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière performed her own choreographed dances to five of the pieces, while Christopher Bagan and Michael Jarvis played the harpsichord and organ, with Lucas Harris on the Baroque lute, accompanied by soprano Ellen Hargis.
Lacoursière, drawing also on her training in commedia dell’arte, portrayed different characters in each of her dances, in 17th and 18th century costume. “I tried to convey characters that I think would’ve been in those scenes,” she told me in an interview after the performance. In the overture, she was a peasant wanting to be a noble, then, donning a cape over her gown, was a passerby stopping in for a dance to the French suites. She had a theatrical skit with Harris while he played Weiss’ lute sonata and she danced a courante, then she was dressed as a harlequine for a burlesca to the Italian suites. For the tombeau, she did away with tradition and wore her natural cropped hairstyle with a black corset and black leggings, which revealed the specificity in the hand gestures and footwork of Baroque dance.
“There are about 360 historical Baroque dances that survive today,” Lacoursière said, “and each was choreographed for a specific musical composition.” Many of the steps – first position, entrechats quatre, plié, pas de bourrée – look quite familiar because Baroque dance is the predecessor to classical ballet. On the importance of dance to the culture of that time, Lacoursière explained, “When people were invited to court”, that’s the term for the fancy parties held by nobles, “guests were given, in advance, instructions for dance steps to ensure everyone could participate in the dancing.” For Lacoursière, she learns Baroque dances by their written notation and through the training she seeks from schools in England and France. “There are many more Baroque dancers in Europe than in Canada…sometimes, I feel quite alone here,” she said frankly, with discernible perseverance.
Through her performance tonight was certainly enlivening and charismatic, I felt the scenes would be more complete if she had been reciprocated on stage by other dancers and actors. I hope the next time I see her perform, she won’t be alone.