William Forsythe, the American choreographer who re-invented ballet in the period after George Balanchine, is a brilliant Janus-faced artist who can both look back at the history of dance while charting its future. Artifact Suite, his 2004 "a ballet about a ballet" (as he calls it), is a shortened version of his original Artifact, created in 1984 when he first became director of the Frankfurt Ballet.
Three decades later, as adapted by the Pennsylvania Ballet at the Academy of Music last week, it still projects a radical edge and dazzling power— maybe a bit too much for some opening night front row audience members, who left early. Dance innovators like Merce Cunningham suffered similar reactions.
Forsythe uses 38 dancers for this piece, often employing them across the breadth and along the perimeter of the large Academy stage as if we'd be experiencing the expanse of a 100-plus orchestra playing a major Mahler symphony.
Force of energy
Although the original, longer Artifact contained more historical references to the origins of ballet in the Baroque courts of Europe as well as dialogue inspired by Michel Foucault, this abbreviated Suite employs as its animating structure a ballet class setting, with the corps replicating and mirroring the hand and arm signals of a roving instructor in leotards (the "Other Person," danced by Caralin Curcio).
They execute in unison but then with an array of variations, and with positioning along the sides— in a V formation, or lying on the floor— the basic geometries of ballet language, which Forsythe then feels free to bend, distort, over-extend or reduce. We see, as an example, a port de bras performed with one arm.
En masse, this reductive source and process, and its rich variation, becomes a force of energy that transcends its ballet components and technique.
Into this ordered maelstrom, and to the vigorous sonorities of the chaconne from Bach's Partita No. 2 in D-minor for violin, Forsythe tosses two pas de deux (danced with élan by Julie Diana and Ian Hussey, and Lauren Fadeley and Francis Veyette), whose swirling and dynamic partnering amidst the corps whips the energy fields into a dizzying rapture.
The overall effect is a feast for the mind and senses alike. At regular intervals, the safety curtain drops with a loud thud, ending one scene and beginning another when it's lifted, a device Forsythe has called both a "musical caesura" and, more recently, "like cinema, a cut in a film."
Yes, but its high theatricality and percussive power sent the Academy audience buzzing in differing ways— from those questioning or even aghast at the unexpected unconventionality of the device, to others who smilingly accepted this assertive pause in anticipation of something new. Forsythe also plays with dimmed lighting and backlighting to create movement within shadows, which offer their own mysteries and questions about perception.
From a Munch woodcut
Another of the evening's gifts was the company's first performance of Forgotten Land (1981) by the Czech-born choreographer JiÅ™í Kylián, now in his 60s, who left his mark on modern ballet during his long tenure at the helm of the Nederlands Dans Theater.
Forgotten Land— inspired by an Edvard Munch woodcut image of a woman looking out to sea from the water's edge, and set to Benjamin Britten's stormy Sinfonia da requiem— opens with the most striking scene of the dance, and one whose visual power is never quite met in later scenes. The 12 men and women, with their backs to the audience and facing the waterscape's dark backdrop, step gently forward and back in tidal paths swept also by occasional side currents, and accompanied by rolls of the head and neck and crooked arms bent at the elbows, suggesting incipient flight.
Kylián then switches gears to offer more conventional vehicles in the form of multiple duets to establish the personal dramas of attachment and dissolution. These duets, danced with feeling and virtuosic flair in Munch-era garments of white, grey, red and black, exhibited flawless and breathtaking partnering.
Yet the varying emotional states of the couples that Kylián might have intended were blurred by their shared high-speed execution. The partners separated in almost violent ruptures, and a small group of women again faced the sea, without the elegiac power of the opening scene and closer to the more stoical stance of the columnal woman in the Munch woodcut.
Perhaps it was unfair to sandwich Matthew Neenan's new work for four dancers between these two masters of contemporary ballet. At Various Points felt tentative and incomplete. It was laced with repetitious index finger pointing and hand-to-temple postures by dancers costumed in black motley that revealed asymmetric areas of skin. Presumably these vernacular hand gestures were meant to communicate the dancers' uncertainties and anxieties, but this viewer, at least, was left unmoved.
The Forsythe and Kylián work revealed the strengths of an outstanding company of dancers who should be offered more such challenging choreography, as well as an audience equally willing to be challenged.♦
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