Review of Solo Bach at the Yale Cabaret As someone once said—Martin Mull probably—and many have quoted, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” OK, and what about writing about other people dancing to music? That’s got to inspire an even stranger analogy. In any case, it’s a strained relation: words about music, dance about music, words about dance about music.
In the case of Solo Bach, the 8th show of the season at the Yale Cabaret, we’re not dealing with dance, per se, but rather interpretive theater/movement, which, by director/creator Yagil Eliraz’s own urging, is left to the viewer to interpret. So that gives an odd sense to a reviewer of being twice removed: interpreting an interpretation of two musical compositions by J.S. Bach, written for solo violin.
First off, Zou Yu’s solo performance, in which she also has to move about sometimes and is entirely without sheet music, is stunning, amazing, inspiring. The violin in these works by Bach becomes a very complex instrument, capable of great emotion and also great restraint. Polyphonic, the works register different “voices” and, it seems, that element is what inspires Eliraz to assign four actors the task of embodying the music in various ways. The first element to overcome here is one’s sense that Bach—music that feels very internal and spiritual—should have physical manifestations accompanying it. And forget the graceful sarabandes and courtly dances of Bach’s era, Eliraz and choreographer Shayna Keller develop movements that are more theatrical, meaning that there is “story” of a sort, at least sometimes.
The segments that work best for this viewer are the more static segments, giving us the opportunity to look at the figures in the piece as just that, figures. Abstract shapes, particularly as Haydee Antunano’s costumes, in their white regularity, accentuate the dimensions of the bodies of the four performer/creators, Paul Cooper, Chalia La Tour, Julian Elijah Martinez, Leora Morris, letting us reflect on how bodies in space interact with shadows, light, and one another. A particularly successful segment occurs early on when Cooper and La Tour, against a projected backdrop of a tree, enact a kind of slow-mo, organic pas de deux with lots of leaning on one another. Elsewhere things get more lively with tear-away patches removed from clothing, and slapping into the walls and removing wall-papered images, though how that interprets the tensions of the Bach is questionable.
The projections (Rasean Davonte Johnson, design; James Lanius III, engineer) help to create visual mood—at times reminding me of the look of scratched and blotted filmstrip passing through oldtime projectors—and the movements at times entail props, such as a suitcase, used very effectively at the close when the foursome withdraw as a single, train-like entity. Another segment features movements that ape the processes of the work-a-day world, somewhat in the manner of the miming in Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal, but, for the most part, the movements in Solo Bach aren’t mime but rather, we might say, motivated behavior, at times behind white masks. But what motivates it is at times hard to discern.
One might say the music is the motivator, but classical music, for me, is notoriously slippery when one comes to giving it “subject matter”; even pieces written for ballet or for dramatic enactment can easily drop the bodily and move into a purely imaginative space that needn’t visualize anything. Not much help for the theatrically inclined.
I wonder how many in the audience found themselves concentrating more and more on Zou You’s virtuoso performance and less on the efforts of the performers. I found myself reflecting—since the Cab space is ideal for considering things from one’s limited point of view—on purely visual elements as counterpoint to the music and preferred those moments when one could see, as they say, “the whites of their eyes” to add more motivated expressiveness—from La Tour and Martinez particularly, who are always very expressive actors—to the proceedings.
What did Bach have in mind when composing these pieces other than the joy of composition and the way that different voices can be joined into a harmonious whole? I’ve no idea. What Eliraz and company have us behold while attending to Bach’s stately and resonant sonatas leaves each of us to reflect, but at least we must all navigate the dueling presence—at times supportive, at times at odds—of the aural and the visual, the musical and the bodily. If we make it a contest, music wins, since as Walter Pater observed over a century ago: “All art aspires to the condition of music.” And, we might add, no art but music attains it.
Solo Bach Conceived and directed by Yagil Eliraz
Performer/Creators: Paul Cooper, Chalia La Tour, Julian Elijah Martinez, Leora Morris; Violinist: Zou Yu; Choreographer: Shayna Keller; Set Design: Jungah Han; Costume Design: Haydee Antunano; Assistant Costume Design: Christina King; Lighting Design: Caitlin Smith Rapoport; Sound Design: Nok Kanchanabanca; Sound Mixing: Fan Zhang; Projection Design: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Projection Engineer: James Lanius III; Stage Manager: David Clauson; Technical Director: Keny Thomason; Production Manager: James Lanius III; Producer: Sally Shen; Associate Producer: Adam Frank
Yale Cabaret December 4-6, 2014