July 9, 2012 6:14 pm

Compagnie Fêtes galantes, Bard Summerscape, Hudson Valley, New York

The French Baroque revivalists eschew mannered courtliness in favour of a more pared-down dance aesthetic

To rest beneath a muted sun where the air was mild and birdcalls pierced the quiet buzz of bugs seemed a better antidote to the blaring heat of Manhattan two hours’ drive south than any dance concert could be. But the neo-baroque Compagnie Fêtes galantes on the opening weekend of Bard Summerscape – which in subsequent weeks presents Molière’s Imaginary Invalid, Chabrier’s comic opera The King in Spite of Himself and a cornucopia of works by this year’s featured composer, Saint-Saëns – perfectly suited the pastoral setting. The stage may have glowed a theatrical orange and red, but Let My Joy Remain for the 10-member French troupe seemed to emerge organically from the music.

As with her Baroque-revivalist counterparts in music, artistic director Béatrice Massin favours the pared-down aesthetic of the period’s instruments, musical forms and dance steps over the French court’s bloated spectacles, curlicued etiquette and powdered wigs. The dancing shares the grounded modesty of 1960s postmodern dance – Trisha Brown’s momentum and weight, Laura Dean’s minimalist patterns – more than the extreme stretch and turnout of ballet, though ballet does descend from the French court.

The men’s and women’s unfurling wrists resembled blooming flowers more than the flourish of a courtier’s bow. The dancers rose to half-point as softly as steam. They bounded forward with arms stretched low and palms up as if welcoming a child into their embrace. They followed the line of gravity and the music’s emphatic descent in chains of jumps and leaps.

Even more impressive than this lovely distillation of the courtly lexicon was the use the choreographer made of the music, three Brandenburg concertos. (With Bach, she diverges again from French sumptuousness.) In these pieces, Bach is experimenting with how many variations he can give solo instruments before the concerto will disintegrate. The effect of this intricate imbrication of pattern and deviation, individual and group, is joy. The Brandenburgs brim with delightful surprises.

Except in the last few minutes, when she allowed the dancers bouts of banal freedom, Massin kept pattern in sight. Throughout Let My Joy Remain’s canon and counterpoint, its splashes of anarchy, its dancers accumulating and peeling away, you could feel Bach’s ticklish grip.

4 stars

Summerscape continues until August 19, www.bard.edu/fishercenter

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