Invitation to the Dance: Bach’s Cello Suites

contretemps de gavotte

A knowledge of French Baroque dance can open up new ways of approaching and performing Bach’s Cello Suites, argues cellist Ulrich Heinen. In this practical guide, he highlights the many steps and gestures evoked in the works.

I have always enjoyed performing  Bach’s Cello Suites, but I used to wonder how valid my interpretations of the dance movements were. I decided to search in history books and dance manuals to find out more about the character and origin of French court dance and its relevance to the Cello Suites. This research fundamentally changed my understanding and interpretation of these great works.

Court dance came to prominence during the European Renaissance as part of an effort to emulate the ideals of classical Greece, where dance as an art form played a central role in cultural life. The aristocracy saw dance as an ideal way to express nobility of mind and spirit, and welcomed the challenge to master its intricate steps and gestures. Participation in court dance became almost obligatory for the highest social classes, especially at the French court in Paris, where the concentration of political power and abundance of funds allowed the development of an outstanding style of serious aesthetic ambition, the danse noble. As the pure, classical, aristocratic dance of the Baroque era, it became a dominant art form during the reign of Louis XIV (1638–1715).

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