CHAPEL HILL — Before Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato created a ballet set to works by J.S. Bach, he spent more than a year listening to music by the 18th-century German composer. When he finally stepped away from the stacks of CDs, he was ready to choreograph 22 pieces of music ranging from the popular cello preludes to the most obscure concertos. He was also profoundly humbled by Bach's prolific output.
The resulting work, "Multiplicity / Forms of Silence and Emptiness," opens with the still-fit, 50-something Duato kneeling humbly onstage as a recording of the solo piano "Goldberg Variations" plays. The object of his adoration is Thomas Klein, a dancer who dons a curled white wig, vest and puffed-sleeve blouse to portray the Baroque master.
As Duato explained last week, speaking from his office in Madrid, this opening scene is a plea from choreographer to composer.
"I want to ask his permission to put my dirty hands into such a beautiful work," Duato said. "I teach him a few of the steps. He says, 'OK, you can do it.' This is what I imagine in my mind."
Since "Multiplicity" premiered in Germany 11 years ago, Duato and his dancers in Compañía Nacional de Danza (the National Dance Company of Spain) have performed the work all over Europe. But thus far, there have been just three performances in the United States. That changes this weekend, when the company opens a seven-city North American tour with two performances at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Emil Kang, executive director of Carolina Performing Arts, had a choice of booking "Multiplicity" or a mixed-rep program of Spanish-flavored dances. Kang opted for the Bach, and by doing so gives local audiences a chance to see a Duato at his classical finest, though not at his quirkiest.
Rock-star in dance
In the dance world, Duato enjoys one-name, rock-star status. Everyone knows Nacho. Born Juan Ignacio Duato Barcia, he trained in Belgium, London and at New York's Alvin Ailey School before spending nine years as both a dancer and choreographer in Holland's famed Nederlands Dans Theater. In 1990, he returned to Spain to run Compañía Nacional, but frequently jets around the world setting his works on other companies.
"Multiplicity" has aged well. The ballet succeeds, Duato says, because Bach's music is so universal.
"I was very careful when choosing the music," the choreographer said. "And what I try to do really with the choreography was to show the music through the movement. When people see the ballet, many have said that they better understand the music."
Bach's music holds up
The two-part ballet loosely parallels Bach's colorful life as a devout composer, adoring husband and father of 20 children. Act I is lighter and infused with clever humor. After the opening supplication, the curtain rises to reveal 20 dancers seated in a semicircle. The recorded orchestra is already playing Bach's "Aeolus" cantata, but once the choir kicks in, Klein begins "conducting." The dancers respond leaps and turns that revel in every line of the music.
Act I includes excerpts from Bach's double violin concerto, a Brandenburg concerto and the cello preludes. The latter is staged as a duet for Klein to "play" a female dancer who spins and extends her legs as she's stroked by a cello bow. It's a lap dance for a composer enraptured by his own music.
Act II, by contrast, is more somber, with a score derived mostly from Bach's final masterpiece, the "Art of Fugue." Mournful organ music accompanies the composer's dance toward death, and when Bach does pass, Duato returns to perform a solo.
"It's dedicated to him, thanking him for leaving this beautiful music to the world," Duato said. "I wanted to bring out the soul of the music and the atmosphere. Music is not only notes. If it were, I could choreograph with just with a score, without listening to the music. That is not the case."