When music is transformed into dance

JENNY BEYER: SUITE

Does music speak directly to the heart? Or do sounds enter our bodies through our ears, and then set us in motion? This much is certain: the relationship between sounds and human body movement is direct and primal. Jenny Beyer relies on this relationship in her production Suite, her first work aimed specifically at younger audiences. Her concern: to help kids understand how music can be transformed into dance.

By Dagmar Ellen Fischer | 13. December 2021

As a starting point, she chose the “Suite for Violoncello Solo No. 1” by Johann Sebastian Bach. Even though the individual movements bear the titles of (historical) dances, they weren’t even danced to in the eighteenth century when Bach composed them. Nevertheless, the choreographer, who used to play the cello herself, responds to the different moods set by the prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande, minuet, and gigue. The immediacy of the communication between the live cellist Lea Tessmann — a musician in the renowned Hamburg ensemble Resonanz — and the two dancers, Jenny Beyer and Joel Small, was an important part of the concept from the very beginning.

Prelude

The morning performance at Kampnagel is attended by several groups of schoolchildren, positioned in a wide circle around the actors. This arrangement is clearly quite suitable for direct communication between performers and audiences. As soon as one enters the performance space, voices beckon from small cube speakers dangling from the ceiling: statements from kids, captured and reproduced in large numbers and simultaneously, so that they’re blended into a mishmash of voices.

In fact, the performance’s live music starts out without Bach: In the beginning, the cellist taps her instrument, and Jenny Beyer does the same with the back of her colleague. She also imitates the cellist’s bowing, rubbing, and wiping movements by touching her partner in a similar way, until finally the cello’s music and the bodies’ movements settle into a regular rhythm together. When the roles are reversed — Joel is now the active one, moving and shaking Jenny, lifting individual parts of her body — Lea creates the fitting acoustic accompaniment. In this way, a dialogue develops between the now equally active dance partners on the one hand and the musical improvisation on the other.

When Lea begins to play Bach’s Prélude, Joel at first inhabits the room by himself: he runs, suddenly stops and pretends to be frightened — the kids laugh at the moment of shock thus provoked. When it’s Jenny‘s turn for a solo, meandering movements dominate. Only in the next movement do the two find themselves dancing together, one close behind the other as an echo of the other. In contrast or as an alternative to the traditional couple dance, she lifts him. Sequences very likely unfamiliar to children’s eyes alternate with those that presumably evoke familiar images, such as bouncing balls — albeit without balls. Once a movement is repeated several times and thus becomes comprehensible, some kids try to imitate it. Joel listens to the cello; Jenny listens to Lea.

Courante

In each of the Suite’s movements, the cellist finds a new seat, so that the spatial distances between the actors change. The types of movement also change: from aggressive boxing or uncontrolled skidding to more gentle slow motion movements. There are phases in which Jenny and Joel move at a fast tempo to slow music or even disregard the meter completely. Their bows can be seen as quoting the vocabulary of dances popular in the 17th century, but these allusions to courtly etiquette are quickly countered by jazzwalks or contemporary everyday movements, such as head bobbing, waving, or crawling.

All three actors wear jogging suits colored in a combination of light gray and bright red. In a pause between movements, the dancers take them off and reveal the leopard print outfits hidden underneath. As Jenny dances along the outer circle track close to the audience rows, some boys cautiously try to touch Jenny’s leopard leggings with their fingertips: The invitation to communicate clearly works.

For the last movement of the suite, the joyful Gigue, all three sit down on a stool close together: Lea with the cello in the front, behind her Jenny, then Joel. Lea’s bow movements are imitated by the other two like shadows, and they also additionally place their hands on the instrument’s fingerboard. Finally, the triplets separate, move individually one last time, and end the performance together with the last note, the final gesture, while it gets dark at the same time.

Minuet

The warm-up or tune-in at the beginning corresponds to a cool-down at the end: Divided into three groups, the kids can each ask one of the three performers questions following the performance. They ask why the lights changed, how long it took to remember everything, and why the jogging suits were taken off. Jenny was asked if it was difficult for her to lift her dance partner — the deliberate inversion of this common figure was apparently noticed by the young audience members.

Then, performers and audience together create a movement that ensures the entire performance’s coherence: Lea plays something in the cello, and the kids imitate it on their own bodies. The music sounds like groping, drumming, tingling, stroking, tapping, and ends with what Jenny calls “shaking music,” to which everyone is allowed to let loose and shake their bodies wildly.

The playful elements that frame the performance — diverse sounds and percussion elements that excite the audience’s imagination — ultimately serve to heighten and accentuate the beauty and complexity of the Suite at the center of the performance; at the same time, however, this free and improvisational music puts Bach’s compositions into perspective and allows for an easier access to them. The mutual invitation to dance, celebrated by Jenny and Joel, thus continues logically and involves the audience in the course of the performance.

The choreography was developed through longer phases of improvisation, so that ultimately each of the two dancers was able develop individual motifs and movement sequences that fit their bodies and thus can be presented convincingly. The three performers’ different physicalities, as well as the physical presence of the cello, offer different possibilities of identification for the kids in the audience. The choreography furthermore conveys non-verbal messages such as “Dancing is independent of gender,” — and, through body language, almost casually questions outdated gender roles in dance. Additional sound elements by the artist Jetzmann, with whom Jenny has been working for years, open children’s ears to disruptions: “I like it when not only Bach can be heard,” says the choreographer. Her main concern was to convey to children that there is no right and wrong when it comes to inventing movement to music. This is also the purpose of those passages of the Suite in which standstill accompanies music, or complex movements are allowed to happen while the music pauses. Music inspires but doesn’t impose movement.

Gigue

But why does music get people moving? On the one hand, this may be due to the fact that movement is already inherent in the phenomenon of sound, because everything we perceive acoustically is nothing other than mechanical vibration. If we separate music into its components of rhythm and melody, we find intersections with the human body in the realm of rhythm: the ups and downs of breathing and the pulsing beat of the heart. In addition, the body’s dualistic structure evokes rhythmically ordered movements such as walking, running, hopping, and jumping.

An indication of this fact can be observed even in young children: Most children, even very young ones, respond to music with body movements that are clearly different from everyday movements and that can be called dance in the broadest sense. It is also known that from the very beginning of humankind, dance and sound in specific coordination with each other played an important role in archaic rituals.

And more than 2000 years ago in ancient Greece, there was only one common word for a stage art form consisting of dance, music and poetry: musikē.
Making music is always also movement. Beyond the vibration of the sounds produced, the musicians themselves move, and with them (usually) the instrument.
Jenny Beyer’s Suite trusts these diverse references on a number of levels, and she trusts the young audience to discover further points of contact themselves.

When the creative team started working on the project, a number of inspirational and motivational questions lined the walls of the rehearsal space. One of them was “How to get into Bach?”

It’s hard to find a better answer than Suite.