The art of fugue is an additive one, an art of sequence. In that compositional mode, a theme introduced by one voice is successively taken up by others, overlapping, often in augmented or diminished form. Each new arrival affects what has come before.
The veteran choreographer Zvi Gotheiner created his “The Art of Fugue,” partly set to Bach’s composition of that title, at the start of this year. His company, ZviDance, filmed a version of it for Montclair State University’s Peak Performances series. It was a “by adding our voices together, we can still make art during a pandemic” piece.
But then, in late March, Gotheiner, who is also a beloved dance teacher, had a stroke, which partially paralyzed the left side of his body.
And when his “Art of Fugue” had its live premiere — at New York Live Arts on Thursday, with Gotheiner watching in a wheelchair — knowledge of that event, like a late-arriving voice, changed the work. More than before, the dance registered as a fight to keep moving, a work of recovery.
It begins in silence, as if at the start of a rehearsal, with a few dancers amid folding chairs working out a phrase or remembering one — clapping out a rhythm, translating it into motion. Gradually, the rest of the adept eight-member cast arrives and joins in, and soon we are seeing and hearing counterpoint.
When the first Bach recording plays, the connection is clear. Without strictly mirroring the musical voices, the eclectic choreography mimics fugal form. It is highly attuned to Bach’s rhythms, sounding them out with folk-dance footwork. Robust, expansive, it does not treat the Bach politely. It rides the Baroque like a bronco.
And there are other voices. Joshua Higgason’s video projections sometimes multiply a soloist’s image, each copy or visual echo delayed so that the solo becomes a round. Other times, the video doubles blur, in a woozy double-vision effect. Often the video angle is from overhead, creating perspective shifts that the choreography also plays with: An early section returns later in a different orientation, as if the room had rotated 90 degrees.
This is all interesting, even if some of the video effects seem gratuitous (the dancer trapped in a virtual web) or just odd (a fuzzy doughnut shape). The truly obtrusive, diminishing voice is the electronic music that alternates with the Bach, by Gotheiner’s longtime collaborator Scott Killian. With its low growls and buzz-saw jump-scares, it sounds like unused scraps from a Hans Zimmer score for “Inception” or “Dune.”
Rather than being out of character with the choreography, though, Killian’s score unfortunately matches a quality of unconvincing emotional excess in it. Even the Bach sections are laden with portentous, heavy-handed gestures, trying too hard to squeeze out the meaning in Bach’s math. An early solo by the arrow-like Nat Wilson is compellingly schizophrenic, but much else overshoots, like the ending, which looks like a 12-step meeting for dancers who have lost their sense of balance.
On Thursday, however, this ending wasn’t quite the end. And what happened next was theatrical and over-the-top and entirely persuasive. During the bows, Gotheiner arrived in his wheelchair. In response to a standing ovation from fans and students, he rose to his feet. And walked. And let go of his cane to raise his right arm. It was like something not out of a Bach fugue, but a Bach mass.
The Art of Fugue
Through Saturday at New York Live Arts in Manhattan; newyorklivearts.org.
Source: NY Times