Three U.S. Ballet Companies Celebrate Forsythe at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

By Jane Rosenberg

All true art refers to the art that preceded it, whether following as a logical outgrowth of earlier investigations or flipping those investigations upside down. Without Giotto, there would be no Titian, without Titian there would be no Delacroix, and so forth. As for dance, suffice it to say that without Petipa there would be no Balanchine, and without Balanchine there would be no Forsythe.

HOUSTON BALLET. Photo credit: Angela Sterling

As contemporary heir to the neo-classical choreography of George Balanchine, no one reflects the master as brightly as William Forsythe. With his embrace of dance history coupled with his decidedly twenty-first century sensibility, refinement and modernity go hand in hand. After most of his creative life spent abroad with the Stuttgart Ballet, Ballet Frankfurt, and The Forsythe Company, he has returned home to the United States – specifically to Southern California where he is current Professor of Dance and Artistic Advisor to USC’s School of Dance.

The program at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion honors Forsythe by bringing together three major U.S. dance companies under one roof in an all Forsythe evening. It’s a terrific conception – an opportunity to compare companies and performances and bask in the prodigious talent on display.

Opening the night was San Francisco Ballet in Pas/Parts 2016, a significant reworking of the ballet created for Paris Opera Ballet in 1999. Clearly for Forsythe, his works are living things that need to grow and change. An artist’s artist, Forsythe stretches his dancers while honoring their strengths and creativity.

In Pas/Parts 2016 the result was breathtaking. Set to music by Forsythe’s frequent collaborator, Dutch composer Thom Willems, a barrage of solos, duets, trios, and ensembles attacked the stage. If Stravinsky worked his magic on Balanchine, Willems could be said to offer similar stimulus to Forsythe. In his minefield of urban cacophony mingled with melodic elements, Willems’ twenty-first century sound propels the dance.

Opening with an electronic screech, Sofiane Sylve appeared on stage, alone against a luminous, pale grey, three-sided backdrop. A duet followed to a beehive hum – pelvises tipped forward and hips jutted out à la Balanchine. Next a trio took the stage, with Julia Rowe the fulcrum for her two male partners, as they twisted and turned her and looped her leg around the neck of one of them. More dancers entered until the stage was ablaze with movement. Fifteen dancers felt like thirty as they turned and pivoted, some in leotards that were black in front and a different color in back, contributing to the sense of ever expanding movement. Razor sharp timing was essential to maintain the counterpoints, syncopations, and swift changes reflecting the rapidity of modern, urban life. The dancers of SF Ballet were up to and exceeded every challenge. The wonder of it all was that the ballet was both contemporary and timeless. It almost seemed outside of time, set in a distant future where sci-fi cha-chas and snippets of waltz-time blended with the insistent beat of engines, derricks, and rigs. From pre-industrial, as reflected in the neo-classical vocabulary of ballet, to post-industrial, as reflected in modern movements and the stark, minimal set, Pas/Parts 2016 was an achievement in time travel.

Bright as a shiny penny, “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude” celebrates neo-classical dance with music to Schubert’s ebullient Allegro Molto Vivace from Symphony No.9 in C major. Bursting with life and danced with vigor by Pacific Northwest Ballet, the joyous tonal music and sparkling point work made it a refreshing contrast to Pas/Parts. It did take a moment or two to readjust one’s internal settings to accommodate the more traditional body placement and carriage of the dancers, but once that was accomplished, the piece rewarded. An abstract little gem of intricate steps placed on diagonals in which dancers often faced in different directions, it was a carnival-esque parade of neo-classical forms. With the muscular dancing of Benjamin Griffiths and Jonathan Porretta, the men possessed a vaguely 1890’s quality and the three ballerinas, in abstractions of ballet tutus based on the shape of a Pringle potato chip, completed the effect.

“Artifact Suite” was a ballet of contrasts – Bach’s Chaconne from Partita Nr.2 giving way to Eva Crossman-Hecht’s contemporary score for piano, the sharp angularity of the choreography in the opening half (to the Bach) giving way to the more fluid rush of steps in the section devoted to Crossman-Hecht’s music. The intentional, sudden thudding of a stark black curtain, dropping down to pause the action onstage at intervals, added a mechanical note, perhaps referring to the click of a camera’s shutter. Adding to the sound effects was intermittent, syncopated hand clapping. All this made for a wonderfully challenging production, danced to formidable effect by the entire Houston Ballet corps, along with two couples – Karina Gonzalez and Ian Casady and Jessica Collado and Chun Wai Chan – and corps member, Bridget Kuhns, who became the conductor of the action, and billed as “Other Person.”

On an empty black stage flanked by standing lights, dancers in leotards and tights stood in lines that followed the perimeter of the stage on three sides. In dramatic Chiaroscuro, they gestured with their upper bodies, creating a kind of sign language of angular arm movements led by Kuhns. In the center, the couples danced their pas de deux. As the performance transitioned from the Bach to the Crossman-Hecht sections a singular atmosphere enveloped the piece, almost like a movement through time from man’s early attempts at language to a more complex vocabulary – the vocabulary of Balanchine as forwarded by Forsythe.

This piece is distilled as a pure dance work from the more narrative “Artifact,” Forsythe’s first full-length ballet. Some confusion resulted from the pause between the Bach and Crossman-Hecht sections, a pause more readily comprehended in the full piece. From the intense cheers following this performance, I would imagine the Los Angeles audience would welcome the ballet in its entirety and much more of Forsythe in the future.

San Francisco Ballet: Pas/Parts 2016

Dores Andre, Frances Chung, Carlo Di Lanno, Lorena Feijoo, Maria Kochetkova,
Sofiane Sylve, Joseph Walsh, Diego Cruz, Julia Rowe, Jennifer Stahl,
Francisco Mungamba, Henry Sidford, James Sofranko, Wei Wang, Skyla Schreter

Music – Thom Willems
Staging – Jill Johnson and Christopher Roman
Scenic and Lighting Design – William Forsythe
Costume Design – Stephen Galloway

Pacific Northwest Ballet: The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude

Leta Biasucci
Benjamin Griffiths
Carrie Imler
Margaret Mullin
Jonathan Porretta

Music – Franz Schubert – Symphony No. 9 in C Major
Staging: Stefanie Arndt
Scenic and Lighting Design – William Forsythe
Costume Design – Stephen Galloway

Houston Ballet: Artifact Suite

Principals and Soloists:
Bridget Kuhns
Karina Gonzalez
Ian Casady
Jessica Collado
Chun Wai Chan

Choreography, Stage, Lighting, and Costume Design – William Forsythe
Music – Johann Sebastian Bach, Eva Crossman-Hecht
Piano performance – Margot Kazimirska
Staging – Kathryn Bennetts and Noah Gelber


To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.

.Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children.   Jane is also the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets




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