It’s a safe bet that Bach never imagined full-fledged concert dance as one of the possibilities of how people might hear and understand his music. He wrote for hire, usually for specific contexts: teaching, church services, court orchestras, and funerals to name a few. And while plenty of choreographers have made narrowly focused pieces on specific works, no one has gone all in on such a broad spectrum of Bach’s music in quite the way Benjamin Millepied has done with I Fall, I Flow, I Melt. It is a deceptively simple title for what becomes in performance a sweeping immersion in Bach’s music that feels authentic, inevitable, and new.
Millepied has chosen not to hang his hat on fixed points as far as the movement is concerned. He aims “to free the dancer” to experience the music on his or her own terms with movement and gesture that reaches beyond established techniques and identifiable styles. You can see the remnants of those abandoned markers but then there is the endless invention of all the other, more remarkable but less explainable movement that is the lion’s share of I Fall, I Flow, I Melt, like those blistering head fakes in the Gigue from the D minor Partita for solo violin as Shu Kinouchi and David Allen Freeland JR circuit the stage at top speed, or the quirky, hobbling steps in the long introspective solo for Lorrin Brubaker for the aria Sheep May Safely Graze, or Anthony Lee Bryant levering himself into a headstand then writhing to the floor in Mein Jesu. Dancing together in their duo even Gianna Reisen in pointe shoes and Doug Baum looked cut loose from the usual sorts of moves that both make and limit ballet partnering.
The touchstone is always the music. In the program notes Millepied writes about finding the heart of Bach’s music and revealing it. He’s made familiar choices and others which are less so. The music has been expanded from previous performances. The choices survey Bach’s large scale sacred music in the opening double chorus from the St. Matthew Passion which plays out as roiling ensemble piece full of the imagery of lamentation. It is followed by the dance music of the D Minor Partita for solo violin played live by Etienne Gara in a performance as good as any you might want to hear. The dancing follows the music with the ebb and flow of smaller ensembles for the dance movements and a full scale ensemble section for the concluding Chaconne. Part Two knits together four orchestral arrangements of Stokowski, one from the Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book), and the others from both sacred and secular choral works. The Our Common Fate section from David Lang’s Our National Anthems for quartet and voices precedes Bach’s C Minor Passacaglia for organ in an immersive ensemble finale which was fitted out in hip, refashioned ecumenical costuming by Alessandro Sartori.
It seems clear Millepied is still working out the music. The Stokowski arrangements are new additions since the work’s last studio theater performance in 2019. While they aren’t standard fare for the authentic music performance aesthetic, they are rich, quasi romantic performances that offer an emotional engagement that often goes missing in period performances. A group of Lang miniatures for solo violin which were part of earlier performances is now out. With three important musical markers holding the structure together the objective feels like more of a voyage of discovery than an arrival at a fixed destination. Given the immense catalogue at hand, there is still a lot of heart in Bach’s music left to be revealed.
On Wednesday ahead of the second week of performances L. A. Dance Project live streamed the whole of I Fall, I Flow, I Melt to an audience of over seventy thousand viewers. Using a mobile camera the performance offered an enhanced vision of this piece opening up new vistas into the dancing with the camera moving among the dancers, circling them, and at times chasing them down on stage. It had a terrific ending too which I will not give away here. Millepied has a knack for enhancing his movement choices for the camera. Like his films for Hearts and Arrows and the accompanying film for Orpheus Highway this work captures the cohesiveness of the company while also acknowledging individual dancers, their unique contributions and personalities.
I Fall, I Flow, I Melt is well on its way as an evolving masterpiece. The company is operating in a sweet zone right now with a growing performance presence in Los Angeles and on international stages. And judging from the growth of this work there is every reason to think there is much more in store.
(The reviewed performance took place on February 22, 2020 in the LADP studio theater space in Los Angeles. Watch the live streamed performance on the L.A. Dance Project Twitter and Periscope accounts. Read additional comments on the 2019 performance of I Fall, I Flow I Melt here.)