Royal Ballet Flanders: Artifact (Inside the mind of William Forsythe)

Posted: April 22nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Royal Ballet Flanders: Artifact (Inside the mind of William Forsythe)

Royal Ballet Flanders, William Forsythe’s Artifact at Sadler’s Wells, Saturday April 21.

There is a photograph of William Forsythe in the Sadler’s Wells program, a beautifully lit portrait in which his disembodied head and hands emerge from the darkness. If you take a quick glance at the portrait, he is smiling, welcoming; but if you focus on his left eye it is quite severe, dark, critical, and the right one shows love, forgiveness and humour. Focus on the smiling mouth, and it rises up at the right into the possibility of a smirk. What exactly is going on inside William Forsythe’s head at that moment?

In 1984, when Forsythe was given the direction of the Ballett Frankfurt, he created a new work for his company, which he called Artifact. It is a work about what was going on inside his head during that brief, three-week period of heightened creativity that was required to bring it out. The work is essentially a portrait, though of course it is created, edited, somewhat artificial. An artifact.

Part 1 of this ballet in four parts opens with the enigmatically named The Other Person (first soloist Eva Dewaele) appearing in a procession of one across the bare stage on a diagonal from downstage right to upstage left, arms calmly rising, like the woman in Balanchine’s Serenade who leads off the final procession from downstage left to upstage right. As an opening statement, it is both an acknowledgement and an undoing: we may have come from there, Forsythe seems to say, but we are not going in the same direction. Once The Other Person has disappeared, enter the Character in Historical Costume (Kate Strong), a baroque presence with a flourish of welcome. To counteract this voluble female force is The Man with a Megaphone (Nicholas Champion), a 20th-century, nagging, rational male with a low battery. The unlikely scene is set. We are invited to step inside the mind of William Forsythe.

Here is the first broad sweep of movement across the stage in which the dancers of Royal Ballet Flanders give us a first taste of the kind of unity they can bring to their ensemble work. The group re-forms around the stage, and from it escapes the first duet by principals Aki Saito and Wim Vanlessen. This is the first time we see Forsythe’s language of pulled out lines and off balance lifts and promenades, the breaking of the classical lines. A second duet of first soloist Yurie Matsuura and corps member David Jonathan is more restrained but with the same neo-classical grammar. This appears to be familiar choreographic territory, but we are seeing it almost 30 years on, after several imitators have picked up Forsythe’s formal ideas without the intention. Despite its age, Artifact maintains its interest precisely because the intention is still very much alive and vibrant.

Part 2 is set to J.S. Bach’s hauntingly beautiful Chaconne in D Minor, the final movement of the Partita in D Minor, played in a recording by Nathan Milstein, to the accompaniment of his heavy breathing. The actors have retired; this is the movement of the dance untrammeled by any nattering dialectic. The corps de ballet lines the stage and the same two couples repeat material from their first movement duets, but here the music adds its own flowing lines to theirs, transforming it with its intimacy and complexity. The duets end magically as the four dancers merge into the two lines of the corps as they exit across the stage. Whatever Forsythe’s reason for bringing in the curtain during this second act, he surely would never have wanted the sound of the curtain hitting the stage to obtrude as much as it did at Sadler’s Wells.

Part 3 starts without warning; surprised audience members shuffle back to their seats as the action continues on stage. This is not the first time Forsythe seems to step out of his role of choreographer to comment on audience conventions, before diving back into the action. And dive he does.  After an opening off-balance, inside-out solo by corps member, Joseph Hernandez, the action descends into madness, stage elements are knocked down and the dance form deconstructed to the accompaniment of Forsythe’s own soundscape in which Bach’s Chaconne appears to be played backwards and The Character in Historical Costume repeats her phrases as rapidly as an auctioneer. The curtain comes down to applause and a solitary and unapologetic boo.

The solo piano, played throughout by the redoubtable Margot Kazimirska, returns with Part 4. Dance form reasserts itself as repeated patterns build up in a remarkable spatial complexity. Towards the end, The Other Person seems to draw into her body all the madness and chaos of the preceding movement. The two speaking characters continue their declamations, to less purpose. The storm has passed; calm is restored. The journey over, and it is time to step outside. The light has gone; all is silence.

This is the kind of work that draws out all the resources of a company and Royal Ballet Flanders has risen to the challenge admirably. The work has been carefully and lovingly put together by the director, Kathryn Bennetts, who was Forsythe’s rehearsal director for 15 years. There will never be abstract dance as long as the dance emanates from the mind of a person, even if not all of its content is readily understandable. Because Forsythe laid bare so much of himself in this seminal work for his new company, by the end of Artifact you feel you have made a journey of discovery that brings you closer to the human condition. It is a credit to the company that they have managed to achieve this so convincingly.