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Dancing with myself: Mark Haim’s The Goldberg Variations at On the Boards

By Julia Voss

Mark Haim

The Goldberg Variations, composed by Johann Sebastian Bach as a set of 30 pleasant-sounding variations for accomplished piano students to practice on. A variation is a repetition of a musical composition with changes in harmony, melody, counterpoint, rhythm, timbre, or orchestration. Haim first conceived of his Goldberg Variations  project while studying at Julliard when he heard the piece of the first time.  

From the beginning, Haim planned to choreograph The Goldberg Variations as a solo performance. However, the piece is over 80 minutes long, far too long for one dancer to perform without breaks, which would ruin the continuity of the composition.  

In designing The Goldberg Variations, Haim dealt with this problem by choreographing the piece as a corporate solo: he divided the solos among a troupe of dancers, preserving the integrity of the concept while giving the dancer the rest they needed to perform well.

The result was a labor of love for Haim decades in the making, which, if the well-received Saturday performance I saw was any indication, was worth the wait. Each of the solo is distinctive, but they retained an underpinning concept reflected not only in the dancing, but also in the set design and costuming.  

True to the origins of The Goldberg Variations, the dancers acted as if the purpose of each solo was to test out their body’s range of motion. They were practicing on stage. The entire show unfolded as if the audience wasn’t there, with the dancers just focusing on their own movements and bodies. It was amazing, like being granted a window into the life of dancer. “Want to see how dancers work and how choreographers create performances?” Haim seemed to be saying.  

Haim shows you what you’d see: the dancers wore plain, work-out clothing, like in Flashdance and Center Stage; the stage was completely bare, like the studios in All That Jazz and Save the Last Dance. The routines, just as in Bach’s musical Variations, were tests or exercises. The dancer would perform the same move repetitively, changing angles or timing, watching his or her body move critically to see which variation worked the best.

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