Hip-hop upstages Bach in The Sebastians’ Terpsichorean concert

Sun Feb 05, 2023 at 1:42 pm

Most Baroque instrumental music originated as dance, but by the time of J.S. Bach the pieces had become so abstract and elaborate that a contemporary critic could write, “An allemande for dancing and one for playing are as different as Heaven and Earth.”

So if one were to musically bring Heaven and Earth together, where better than a historic 1893 church in the Lincoln Center neighborhood? On Saturday afternoon, the sanctuary of Good Shepherd-Faith Presbyterian Church on West 66th Street resounded gently with the Baroque violin of Daniel S. Lee and the harpsichord of Jeffrey Grossman, two members of the flexible ensemble The Sebastians, in lively and affecting performances of music by Bach and his contemporaries–while a man danced.

Listeners to the program titled “Bach in Motion” sat not in pews but in arcs of chairs arranged to give plenty of floor space to dancer Steven Vilsaint. That was a good thing, because the Haitian-born artist’s exuberant dancing style came not from 18th-century drawing rooms but from the streets and parks of 21st-century New York. In this concert, historically-informed musical performance met contemporarily-informed hip-hop dance, enriching the meaning of both.

There were moments of interaction of a literal kind, as when, during a fast, ornate violin passage, Vilsaint stood next to Lee with arms waving and fingers fluttering. More often, one watched the dancer to see what unpredictable motions the music might provoke, which ranged from robotic popping to soft caresses, and from spins and feints to gymnastic flips.

Some of his gestural vocabulary (pull the rope, feel the wall) seemed derived from street mimes. In quieter passages, he might stand on one foot for a minute or more, balancing precariously as he did elaborate choreography. When the music became agitated, he could wheel around off balance, and even take a scary fall on the church’s old wooden floor. At times, each of his arms and legs seemed to have a mind of its own. With well-hidden skill, his dancing often sent a message of “outta control” that interacted strangely with the musicians’ polished playing.

Dressed in black everyday clothes and white sneakers, Vilsaint mostly kept to his zone next to the two players, but wasn’t above dashing in front of them when a presto inspiration hit. Lee’s and Grossman’s concentration on their playing never wavered, despite the busy activity a few feet away, all of which appeared to be improvised in the moment rather than planned in advance.

Lee and Grossman, respectively the “founding director” and the “artistic director” of The Sebastians, made a seamless duo, conjuring the opening Adagio of Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1014, seemingly out of thin air, then artfully mixing the various harpsichord stops with Lee’s malleable tone in the later movements. Lee’s playing was always melodious, whether in fast or slow movements. Vilsaint responded to this sonata with tai-chi-like slow motion, then with bolts of energy vibrating his body.

The orderly program of this concert alternated Bach violin sonatas with Grossman’s colorful renderings of dance suites for solo harpsichord by French composers. The Suite in A minor by Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre began with a Prelude and Allemande in the heavily ornamented French style, then lightened up with a stately Sarabande, lilting Gigue, full-toned Chaconne with variations, and finally a brisk Menuet on the instrument’s lute stop. For the last three movements, Vilsaint brought a folding chair onstage and danced in, on, and with it.

Lee and Grossman richly characterized the movements of Bach’s brilliant Sonata No. 2 in A major, BWV 1015, opening slowly in a songful dance, then crackling with wit in a snappy Allegro assai. The dancer joined them for the dainty Andante un poco, rotating and waving in an imaginary breeze, then went acrobatic in the Presto, stringing together back flips and dancing in a handstand.

Dancer Vilsaint took a break during the Suite in D minor by Louis Marchand, leaving the acrobatics to harpsichordist Grossman and the work’s ornate Prelude. Six dance movements followed, notably a rich-toned, melancholy Sarabande and a sonorous Chaconne with variations in flashing scales.

The musicians’ characterful Bach playing continued in the closing Sonata in G major for violin and basso continuo—meaning, in this case, the written harpsichord part consisting of a bass line, with the rest left to the player. Vilsaint danced to all four concise movements, swaying gently and flipping to the aria-like Adagio, doing more extravagant flips in the brief Vivace, balancing on one foot with fluid motions to the expressive Largo, and, in the scintillating closing Presto, giving new meaning to the phrase “shake a leg.”

Ultimately, the breathtaking athleticism and sassy creativity of Vilsaint’s hip-hop dancing tended to steal the spotlight from the more decorous music-making, rich and expressive as the latter was. But there were smiles all around at the end, and enthusiastic applause for the skillful performances.

The Sebastians, with painter Kristina Libby, will perform “Bach in Color,” a program of real-time painting with music by J.S. Bach, Jacquet de la Guerre, Bologne, and Francoeur, 2 p.m. March 25 at Good Shepherd-Faith Presbyterian Church. sebastians.org.

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