Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève, Joyce Theater, New York

Emanuel Gat’s response to the big guns of classical music can seem perverse. To the relentlessly climactic Rite of Spring, the musically trained choreographer presented a cluster of hipsters doing a slurry salsa. Winterreise, Schubert’s desolate song cycle, elicited a duet without a whiff of loss. Now Preludes & Fugues (until Sunday) gives short shrift to the grand orderliness of The Well-Tempered Clavier, Bach’s pedagogic progress through every key, minor and major, flat and sharp.

But these dances are not merely manifestos of refusal. With Preludes & Fugues, as before, the Israeli-born, French-based choreographer is clearing away the evident architecture to arrive at the work’s sublime, elusive engine.

To Glenn Gould’s rendition of nine preludes and seven fugues mostly in minor keys, the 70-minute piece refuses whatever sentiment we might attach to a prelude’s sunburst of notes or a fugue’s dogged prolixity. Gat resorts to no shapes or gestures on to which we might fasten a story. Descended from the likes of Trisha Brown, his style is soft, self-effacing and anti-imagistic. Limbs rarely stretched, nubbly joints such as elbows and knees got their due, and humble gravity set the course of motion. There was nothing to distract us from the unfolding dance – and from becoming absorbed.

Any number of the 19 dancers might perform solos side by side, switch parts, slip in and out of unison, dance in canon, stand on the margins as sentinels or amid the commotion as obstacles. Occasionally everyone erupted at once, in moments of tremendous inchoate beauty. The dancing did not describe the music, as Mark Morris might; rather, it wove in and out of the Bach as another fugal voice. Structure was always palpable and always surpassing understanding.

You wanted to figure it out. What in the music made Gat set certain dancers in shadow and others in light? What made him have one woman walk directly into the wings while her peers faced on diagonals? Why did the dancers entangle their limbs to this prelude and not another? These questions may touch on meaning simply because dance’s medium is humans – us interpretative animals – but the hunger for illumination comes straight from Bach. Gat channelled it.

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