The five movements of Bach’s Partita No. 2 take their names from baroque dances, but this famously difficult solo for violin is not an obvious choice for a ballet. It is relentless yet halting – jagged with an effort that feels both modern and as ancient as Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the hill.
Hence the miracle of Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita, revived for the first time practically since its debut in 1983, with wunderkind Charles Yang’s crystalline yet muscular playing emanating from the pit. Together this season (until Sunday) with Mark Morris’s 2001 Gong and the final piece in Alexei Ratmansky’s recent Shostakovich trilogy, the Tharp exults in the ballet idiom while stretching it wide.
The tension in the music between a continuous melodic line and myriad knotted stops translates into a ballet frequently knocked off its centre. Bach Partita maintains traditional ballet rank, with a large female corps travelling in a flock and soloists giving pride of place to principals’ pas de deux. On the other hand, one pair of principals will regularly enter to distract attention from another, and soloists’ syncopated variations on each other and the principals draw the eye upstage.
Still, the overall impression is not of chaos but of structure – its growing and lapsing. Just as much as the D minor partita is an essay on the violin – the human yearning and struggle inherent in the bow stroke – Bach Partita enlarges on the basics of academic dance, much more so, in fact, than Tharp’s other classical efforts for American Ballet Theatre or her pop ballets. Legs unfolding expansively – the body dipping and swaying in accommodation – begin as homely tendus.
Tharp joins this conservative foundation to a modern dance ethos of individualism. The ballet’s three couples exhibit distinct personalities: Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes are perky and flirtatious, ever more valuable newcomers Polina Semionova and James Whiteside prove sexily gluey, and Stella Abrera and Calvin Royal III dance with stark daring. Even the rare unison passage looks startlingly eclectic.
Bach Partita celebrates the grand architecture of ballet and also each disappearing moment, each inimitable person (each dancer glorious this weekend). Tharp has built a wondrously strange thing: a monument to evanescence.