How do you make something fresh from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons? That was the problem Édouard Lock set himself for a new dance work for Brazil's Sao Paulo Companhia de Danca, which brings Lock's 50-minute solution to the puzzle to Ottawa and Montreal this week.
Vivaldi's greatest hit is a fixture on classical radio, and has been used to sell everything from cars and smartphones to bathroom fixtures. Even people who can't say who wrote it or when have some personal history with the music – which was a large part of its appeal for Lock.
"These are pieces that have entered the collective unconscious," he said in a phone interview from Paris. "The act of combining something that you've already experienced with something you haven't yet seen is something I like to use as one of the tensions available to a work. There's a sort of distortion between the stage and the audience that is dependent on the memories of each individual."
There's another kind of distortion happening with the music itself, which doesn't appear in its original form. English composer Gavin Bryars has crafted a new composition from 12 excerpts from the work's four violin concertos, and from Vivaldi's Violin Concerto in G major.
"It's very clear where the fragments come from, but they move in directions that would have been impossible for the composer at that period," Bryars said, speaking from his studio in Britain. Some fragments appear in new harmonizations, or as tiny cells that repeat without melody, or even with new melodic material.
"I decided to change the texture of the music, to write it for a quintet of two violas, two cellos and double bass," said Bryars, who has repurposed several other existing pieces for Lock ballets. "That gives it a darker, richer and more homogeneous sound, and the solo part is not so separate."
That choice alone brought Bryars's score closer to the kind of intimate ensemble work that Lock created, in which everyone and no one is a soloist. The dance, a video of which is streaming on YouTube, is a series of encounters for a small number of dancers who flit in and out of spotlights of varying size and intensity.
"My own associations with Vivaldi probably had some impact on the choreography," Lock said, "though it's not a direct impact relating to the rhythm or the structure of the piece. Choreography has its own rhythm and its own relationship to time." He set the steps of the ballet with no reference at all to what was going on in the music.
The movement is mainly oriented around a strong vertical axis, as in classical dance, with lots of rapid activity in the arms and legs that seldom propels the dancer across the floor. "Édouard asks for a lot of velocity and contrast," Sao Paulo Companhia de Danca director Ines Bogea said during a stop on the company's European tour. "He uses a very high classical technique mixed with everyday movements."
Lock said he constructed the work with the assumption that the audience's focus of attention can't be corralled, and that the piece is bound to be completed and varied by each individual's own perception. "You can't really tell if some people will be paying more attention to the music, and others more to the dance," he said.
In the work's first incarnation, the five instrumentalists appeared on the stage behind the dancers, becoming part of the visual aspect of the piece. That won't happen at the Canadian shows, where recorded music will be used.
Another thing that you won't see is the kind of wild horizontal energy of Lock's early work with La La La Human Steps, the company he founded and with which he became globally prominent three decades ago. It was a shock to the dance scene in Montreal and abroad when Lock announced last fall that financial difficulties had forced him to close the company, which had worked with the likes of David Bowie.
However, Lock's freelance work has continued with scarcely a pause, taking him most recently to the Paris Opera Ballet for several months for another work with Bryars based on scores by Tchaikovsky. Lock's choreographies take time to come together, as Bogea saw for herself in Sao Paulo.
"He spent three months with us, working every day," she said, referring to rehearsals leading up to The Seasons' 2014
premiere. "He created all the movements and every detail, and then created a lighting design for each section of the piece. There are several layers that interact with each other, so that each viewer can choose where to look."
That's another way of saying that the piece probably can't be seen in its entirety by any viewer, because each will spontaneously take his or her own path. What is presented and what we can assimilate are not the same thing.
"Looking at something you think you understand and not fully understanding it is something that I've always applied to choreography," Lock said.
Sao Paulo Companhia de Danca is a young company that was founded in 2008, but has already toured 90 cities in 11 countries. Its debut Canadian program also includes recent works by Brazilian choreographer Jomar Mesquita and Spaniard Nacho Duato, who has previously set several works on Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal.