Goldberg Variations blurs boundaries between classical music and choreography

Goldberg Variations, a collaboration between the Scottish Ensemble and Andersson Dance, which will be touring from November 13th 2015
Goldberg Variations, a collaboration between the Scottish Ensemble and Andersson Dance, which will be touring from November 13th 2015
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THE Scottish Ensemble’s musicians had a steep learning curve when they teamed up with Sweden’s Andersson Dance, but choreography has added a new dimension to their performance, says Artistic Director Jonathan Morton

I t all began with a beer in a South Korean bar. Thorben Dittes, former Scottish Ensemble chief executive, was chatting to Swedish dance producer Magnus Norberg when the subject of choreography came up. “You should look at exploring collaborations with dance, and you should get in touch with Örjan Andersson,” suggested Norberg. “He’s a choreographer who might be worth exchanging ideas with.”

Three years on, the ideas have been thoroughly exchanged. Dittes moved away last year to a new orchestral post in Gateshead, but not before he put his artistic director and lead violinist Jonathan Morton in touch with Norberg, and subsequently Andersson, and the plot to fuse Morton’s musicians with Andersson’s Swedish dancers (Andersson Dance) in a choreographed production of Bach’s Goldberg Variations – which tours Scotland from this Friday – was hatched.

Why dance to the Goldbergs? “I came up with a shortlist of works, but was secretly hoping Magnus would pick the Bach,” Morton explains. “The structure of the piece – the fact it’s broken down into 30 variations – is ideal as it has these natural breaks where interesting dramatic things can be made to happen. The general flexibility of Bach’s writing is something I thought would work well in this context. It’s a bit of a blank canvas so it was difficult to anticipate what was going to happen.”

What makes this collaboration so curiously exciting is the way it has demanded more of the musicians than simply playing their instruments. Costumed up like the dancers, the performance – it was premiered in Stockholm in September – hinges around the blurring of traditional performance boundaries.

Yes, the string ensemble’s actual playing of Bach’s masterful sequence of 30 variations – in Dmytri Sitkovetsky’s arrangement for string ensemble and trio – will be recognisably Bach. But the players will also engage with the dancers in movement sequences designed to take the music onto a fresh plain, and more daringly, to push the musicians out of their regular comfort zone.

Even the enterprising Morton, experienced in a range of “alternative” musical projects and always up for a challenge, entered into this one with a sense of trepidation.

“As with all these kinds of explorative collaborations, you don’t always know what you’re getting into. You can feel scared at the beginning. But I’ve done a few of these kinds of projects now, and the uncertainty is something I’m getting to enjoy a lot,” he says.

But what about the rest of his talented string band, many of whom, when they’re not on SE business, can be found in the ranks of Britain’s orchestras? “Yes, there was trepidation there, absolutely,” Morton admits. “A lot of it actually. None of us had worked with a choreographer before, and we weren’t sure what he would make us do.

“We had sort of warned ourselves that we might be asked to do things well out of our comfort zone and that we may not find it easy. The first two days of workshopping we did in May were very intense, but they were also rewarding and the players got really excited about the whole thing very quickly. “

Such experimentation is typical of current Scottish Ensemble thinking. Recent seasons have seen the group take up residence in various towns and cities in Scotland, popping up in shopping malls and other unusual public venues in a bid to connect with a new audience. In turn, that’s given an edge to its music-making, which was always convivial.

But this project has propelled them into a new sphere: one, according to Morton, that will sharpen, as well as open, their collective minds.

“The rehearsal process alone has been an invigorating experience,” he says. “When we went over to Sweden, the dancers had already been working for five weeks. I thought the choreography would all be set in place by then and we would simply slot in in those last few rehearsals. But incredibly, it kept changing right up to the day before the performance. The whole creative process was continually in flux, which was very exciting for us, but classical musicians are not used to working like that at all.”

The entire cast includes 11 musicians and five dancers, all costumed to minimise their physical distinction. Sometimes the musicians even discard their instruments. “There are sections where we just use our bodies and blend into Örjan’s choreography, which really reflects the playfulness of the music,” Morton says, though that’s as far as he’s prepared to let the cat out of the bag. “I don’t want to give the whole game away.”

How easy is it, though, to play as an ensemble when everyone is gadding about the stage? “Yes, that’s an issue that we’ve had to work at,” he acknowledges. “Sometimes we’re so physically far apart that we’ve had to start listening to each other in a very different way, even memorising bits, and that’s presented all kinds of interesting issues.

The fact is, it has already gone down a storm in Sweden. “I think it helps that it isn’t one of those shows that are really serious, where the lights go down and you have to focus hard and have a very intense experience,” Morton believes. “I wanted to have something where the barriers between high art and everyday life were blurred. That makes it easier for an audience, unfamiliar either with classical music or dance, to come and connect with. It brings them right into the show.”

Will they do something like this again? “We all went away from the first performances thinking this is a really wonderful way to work,” Morton says. He’d like to do something similar again, but not before he has seen this project through to the end, which comes after the forthcoming Scottish tour (13-19 November), and more performances in Sweden in February.

“We’ll have to see if people like it in Scotland, but we’re certainly up for it.”

• Goldberg Variations: ternary patterns for insomnia is at the Tramway, Glasgow, 13 and 14 November, 0141-353 8000; Caird Hall, Dundee, 15 November, 01382 434 940; Eden Court, Inverness, 17 November, 01463 234234; Aberdeen Music Hall, 19 November, 01224 641122 and Dance City, Newcastle 20 and 21 November, 0191-261 0505, www.scottish