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Bach 360°: Dance in the Music of Bach

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Last Tuesday night, the New York Philharmonic’s principal cellist, Carter Brey, had just finished playing a selection from Bach’s Sixth Cello Suite at the David Rubenstein Atrium when WQXR’s Jeff Spurgeon remarked, “He makes you see God and want to dance.”

Though it’s doubtful that Bach intended his music for dancing, he wrote his fair share of chaconnes, gigues, bourées, gavottes, and sarabandes—all based upon conventional French court dances. Centuries later, these works would inspire choreographers to great pieces of their own. In celebration of Bach 360, we’ve collected five notable examples of Bach’s presence in the worlds of ballet, modern, and contemporary dance.

1. Jerome Robbins: "A Suite of Dances"

When Spurgeon remarked on Bach’s dance ability, perhaps he was thinking of the multitude of works that were set to his Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, which are largely modeled on Baroque dances. Jerome Robbins’s “A Suite of Dances,” created for New York City Ballet in 1994, uses four movements from the six suites. Rudolph Nureyev collaborated with the choreographer Francine Lancelot on the ballet “Bach-Suite,” set to the cello works. More recently, Yo-Yo Ma commissioned Mark Morris to choreograph the third suite for his Inspired by Bach project, for which Morris created “Falling Down Stairs.”

2. Twyla Tharp: "Bach Partita"

The chaconne traces its provenance back to a lively 16th century dance, so it’s no surprise that Bach’s famous rendition of the form in the Partita for Violin No. 2 has served as accompaniment for several dances. Twyla Tharp used the Chaconne as the finale in “Bach Partita,” while William Forsyth used it as the starting point for creating his 1984 masterpiece, “Artifact” (it sets the entire second act). Strangely, George Balanchine’s ballet “Chaconne” seems quite contrarian, as it’s set to Gluck.

3. Boris Eifman: "Musagète"

To celebrate the Balanchine centenary in 2004, New York City Ballet commissioned the choreographer Borif Eifman to create a tribute to Mr. B. The result, “Musagète" (right), which is a reference to the ballet “Apollo,” pays homage to the impresario with works set to Fugue à la Gigue in G major and the Sarabande from Violin Partita No. 1, among other works by Bach and one by Tchaikovsky. Though Bach appears frequently in the New York City Ballet repertoire, it’s usually in ballets by Jerome Robbins and Peter Martins; Balanchine only used Bach’s music once, the Double Violin Concerto in “Concerto Barocco.”

4. John Neumeier "Bach Suite Nos. 2 and 3"

The American director of the Hamburg Ballet, John Neumeier, references two suites for orchestra in his ballets "Bach Suite No. 2" and "Suite No. 3," which both premiered in 1981. Those two musical works later factored into Neumeier’s “Magnificat,” an assemblage of Bach’s music that also includes selections from more somber works, such as Suite No. 3 for Organ, the Mass in B-minor, and, of course, the titular Magnificat. Neumeier has also made full-length ballets to the St. Matthew Passion and the Christmas Oratorio.

5. Paul Taylor: Multiple Works

Our previous four examples cite examples of dances that were specifically set to Bach’s own dances, however, our fifth recognizes a the choreographer Paul Taylor, who has found a endless source of inspiration in Bach, not just his minuets and musettes. Within the repertoire of Taylor’s eponymous company are  “Brandenburg,” “A Musical Offering,” “Esplanade” (which is set to the Double Violin Concerto), “Cascade” (a mix of three keyboard concertos), and “Promethean Fire” (Toccata and Fugue in D minor; the Prelude in E-flat minor from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier; and the chorale prelude "Wir glauben all' an einen Gott").

Free Download [Expired]: David Fray Plays the Sarabande from the Partita No. 2 in C Minor (BWV 826)

The French pianist David Fray has recorded two albums of Bach, the most recent featuring the Partitas Nos. 2 and 6 and the Toccata in C minor. The partitas were originally performed on harpsichord but Fray gives it the modern grand treatment. (Available at

Programming Highlights for Tuesday (all times approximate)

7a Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C, BWV 1066

8a Italian Concerto in F Major, BWV 971, plus the secular written in honor of Bach’s Cothen boss Prince Leopold: Cantata BWV 173a, "Durchlauchster Leopold" 

9a Magnificat in D, BWV 243

10a Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV 225 (motet – “Sing to the Lord a New Song”)

11a Violin Concerto No. 2 in E Major, BWV 1042

12p Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-flat, BWV 1051

2p Cantata BWV 206, "Schleicht, spielende Wellen" ("Glide, playful waves")

3p Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008

4p Cantata BWV 57, "Selig ist der Mann"  (“Blessed is man)

5p Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, BWV 1043

6p Partita in E major, BWV 1006a  (Bach’s transcription for lute of the E Major Partita No. 3 for solo violin)

7p Cello Suite No. 4 in E-flat major, BWV 1010

8p Furchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir, BWV 228

9p Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G, BWV 1048