The Laban Theatre is a beautiful performance space; a huge square stage in an auditorium lined with the rich dark wood needed to soak up sound in recitals. The Theatre is part of the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, itself an exceedingly well regarded school for art forms to be found in the name, and the performances emanating from its theatre are typically thoughtful works by its best and brightest.
Reading With Bach bears a relatively literal relation to its title. The fore of the stage is festooned with stacks and stacks of books, and behind them on the large open space a trio of dancers move – often holding books – as two violinists perform an adapted composition from a number of Bach’s solo works.
The staging itself is excellent; the sparse space is lent colour by the paperbacks littered around its edges, and half a dozen or so old wooden chairs provide objects for interaction and imbue the space with a sense of the historical. It is the lighting which proves itself the most important part of the staging, with subtle shifts in tone and positioning changing the ambience of the space, tying closely to the variances in tone as the violinists shift through various of Bach’s works. The lighting evokes first an Austrian warmth and wealth, at other times a room illuminated by a single vast window, and at others the wintry Prussia of Bach’s most potent and most tragic music.
The performance of the two violinists is excellent, as is the score. A careful and thoughtful blending around the edges of a number of Bach’s most famous violin works leads to a piece which, if not purely holding a narrative, moves easily and gracefully from one mood to the next, framing the space through which the dancers move. The G Minor Adagio marries a drawn out, mournful, half-dissonance with hard, powerful bowing, and along with other parts, marks the vertiginous sadness at which Bach is at his most potent.
Later on playful pizzicato is married to an almost bawdy, yawing playing style, and elsewhere a 3/4 tempo brings out some of the most conventional, but also most immediate, dancing from the young trio. The dancers seem initially aimless, and even distracting for the first section, before moving into more structured rhythms and interactions. Though the piece is not about a constructed and total narrative, the subtle responses which seem to grow out of each new turn of the music are for the most part arresting, moving between contemplation, relationships, loss, death, and finally into an arresting image of redemption; a bridge of books across an empty stage.