It is not uncommon to see a William Forysthe piece on a ballet programme but it’s rare to get a trio. Hats off, then, to Aaron Watkin, director of Semperoper Ballett in Dresden and a former Forsythe dancer, for offering this fascinating opportunity to see three different faces of Forsythe in one go.
In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated is one of his best-known works. With its sparse, industrial feel, the way it flips between nonchalance and virtuosity, and its thwacking synthetic soundscape, the piece has an immediate impact. But it also holds up to repeated viewing, and despite its uncluttered appearance, there is always a lot going on. Take the opening: a gaggle of dancers in informal poses get pulled one by one into sharp sequences of darting jumps and rapid swerves that multiply and fracture until the stage feels filled by a cut-glass choreographic kaleidoscope.
Composition is one kind of complexity; another is the layering of physical presence, the dancers switching between full-out performance mode, nonchalance and what look like run-throughs. Sometimes they seem to be playing to the backcloth rather than the auditorium, and Forsythe also scatters our attention, cheekily undercutting high tension, split-kicky numbers at centre stage with deadpan or low-key action in the margins. It’s quite a blast.
Neue Suite is a more conventional work, composed of eight duets adapted from Forsythe’s back catalogue. Here, he takes the framing for granted – all are traditional balletic male-female pairings, staged conventionally and set to classical music – in order to focus on the content. Bookending the suite are a duet in ballet’s lyrical mode, all curving grace and floating lifts, and one in its sparkling mode, with fleet footwork and sharp lines. In between come encounters pegged closely to the mood and phrasing of their music (Handel, Berio, Bach), but with a density of physical and dynamic detail that is all Forsythe’s own. One, following the pursuit implicit in the musical canon, is full of feints, catches and slip-ups; another, like open violin strings, seems to be all about harmonics and overtones, the couple’s arms echoing and extending each other’s lines into the air around them; a third is all dissonance, crankily built from jolts and blocks. Each is fascinating in itself, while the format makes them into a series of studies on a theme.
The best comes last. If In the Middle plays with its own framing, Enemy in the Figure breaks it up altogether. A high wooden wall cuts right across the middle of the stage, and a lot of choreography seems to happen behind it. But then, a lot of action is obscured upfront too, with lights that dim, flare and sweep such that the shadows feel as active and as integral to the performance as any dancer.
all the dynamics of a suspense movie with none of the plot
Forsythe is too much the showman to let that be simply a clever device. Instead, he makes it thrilling. We don’t know half of what’s happening, but we glimpse leggy figures spidering away in the shadows, there are chases, fights and escapes, sudden surges and stillnesses, a restlessly thrumming score – all the dynamics of a suspense movie with none of the plot. It’s a piece that hooks you as much by what it withholds as what it shows, and the dancers seemed to love it quite as much as the audience.