Semperoper Ballett, All Forsythe Program, Sadler’s Wells, June 21
William Forsythe’s name is synonymous with a vision of classical dance that is on the advanced edge of contemporary ballet and the opportunity to see an evening of his work in London is rare. The three works on Semperoper Ballett’s London première at Sadler’s Wells — In The Middle Somewhat Elevated, Neue Suite and Enemy in the Figure — are all vintage Forsythe from his time at the helm of Ballet Frankfurt. This is both the draw and the challenge for the company’s artistic director, Aaron Watkin, and his 18 dancers. Watkin has strong connections to Forsythe both as a dancer and as one of those responsible for staging his work around the world, but here he stands at the helm of his own company that the Forsythe brand has put on the international map.
Despite the close lineage of Forsythe, there is an impression in watching Semperoper Ballett that — with some exceptions — the dancers are doing the choreography rather than letting it happen. In the creation of In The Middle Somewhat Elevated Forsythe was fascinated with the ability of dance to arise autonomously from a state of pedestrian languor; it was as much the formal extensions to which he took ballet as how a dancer got there that interested him. The constant play within In The Middle Somewhat Elevated between doing nothing and pulling off a sequence that takes the breath away is what maintains a sense of excitement and risk in the work, qualities that the score by Thom Willems unequivocally reinforces. What we are missing on the Sadler’s Wells stage is that space for what isn’t happening before a step, the coolness of non-anticipation; what we are seeing is the premeditated preparation. This extra effort takes away from the élan of the steps themselves — not to mention the sense of risk — and alters their precise musicality. Some technical lapses on this first night performance contribute to the general lack of brilliance of the dancing, though the rapturous applause recognizes the continuing allure of the work.
Neue Suite premiered with Semperoper Ballett in 2012 but it’s sequence of eight duets derives from three previous works Forsythe made for his own company: Invisible Film (1995) to Handel’s Concerti Grossi op. 6, Workwithinwork (1998) to Berio’s Duett für 2 Violinen and Kammer/Kammer (2000) to the Allemande of Partita No. 1 by Bach. Roslyn Sulcas writes in the program, ‘Forsythe may not be interested in emotional contents in the narrative sense but he is definitely interested in the relationships and emotions that are created through physical interaction.’ It’s a wonderful insight into how to read these duets and the inclusion of Neue Suite is a welcome addition to the program by presenting Forsythe’s choreographic intelligence — as well as the dancers — in intimate detail. As relationships go there’s as much tension as there is emotion in the partnering but individually it’s the women who come off more relaxed and self-assured, especially Alice Mariani, Jenny Laudadio and Sanguen Lee. It is only in the final duet that Zarina Stahnke and Houston Thomas find common ground and a shared exhilaration.
Enemy in the Figure is a wild beast of a work that gives the company a chance to revel in the rich theatrical complexity that Forsythe can bring to the stage not only as choreographer but as designer of the set, costumes and lighting. An undulating plywood wall divides the stage diagonally and the lighting is provided by an industrial-sized lamp that is wheeled round the stage by the dancers with the excitement and precision of explorers in a cave. Enemy in the Figure is as much about what moves in front of the light as what might be happening in its shadows or invisibly behind the wall. The stage becomes a dream-like phantasmagoria peopled with energy where Forsythe, reunited with a score by Willems, enjoys breaking free of old theatrical conventions and creating new ones, splitting the stage into zones of cerebral activity connected by a pulsing cortex of rope. It’s immediately apparent this is a work that suits the company’s men in particular, allowing their range of physicality and imagination to let loose. There’s a duet for two men where legs fly like helicopter blades against the partition, memorable interventions by Jón Vallejo and a wildly articulated solo by Christian Bauch where his black, fringed outfit makes him look like the devil incarnate. If light brought this work to life it is its withdrawal that brings it slowly and silently to a close with only the sound of someone knocking on the plywood partition.