The National Ballet of Canada/Physical Thinking: William Forsythe Program, choreographed by William Forsythe, Four Seasons Centre, June 1 to 8. Tickets available at national.ballet.ca.
To devote a program to the choreography of William Forsythe is a sound idea, given that the American-born dancesmith is one of the most lauded icons of contemporary ballet in the world. During his years as artistic director of Frankfurt Ballet (1984 to 2004), Forsythe’s idiomatic approach to movement made his company an international darling. In a Forsythe work, the dancers not only occupy space, they own it. That being said, the National Ballet’s Forsythe evening has come up on the short side — not because of artistic reasons, but because of the program itself.
Three Forsythe ballets are on display. The Second Detail is there of course, because Forsythe created the work on the National in 1991. Rounding out the program are two companion works from 1996 — The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude and Approximate Sonata 2016 (the latter being revised in 2016 for the Paris Opera Ballet). All told, there is only sixty-two minutes of dance, which could be the shortest mixed program on record for the National. This Forsythe evening needs one more piece to make it fully satisfying, with that work being radically different from the other three in some way.
Both The Second Detail and Approximate Sonata 2016 share the eccentric crash, bang and drone electronic music of Forsythe favourite, Dutch composer Thom Willems. On the surface, the choreography also contains similarities manifested in Forsythe’s trademark movement. The opener, The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, a whirling dervish in tutus, set to a Schubert symphony, does give us both a musical and stylistic change-up. A fourth non-Willems piece placed between the other two would help differentiate the ballets to better advantage, as well as making the program feel more complete. The entire ballet orchestra was on hand for only the twelve-minute Vertiginous. Another work requiring an orchestra would have better served the evening, as well as giving us a breather from Willems… which is not to say I’m anti-Willems, by any means.
The much beloved The Second Detail is a group work for fourteen dancers, where shifting numbers and patterns criss-cross the stage in wild abundance. Everywhere you look, something different is going on, a duet here, a line of in-sync men there, a female solo somewhere else — all broken up by casual walking and gentle jogging. The dancers seem insouciant, even in your face with attitude (as I first described the work in 1991). Forsythe loves implicit sexiness, hence one leg on its toes, which flexes the knee and thrusts out the hip, adding to the work’s sense of cool. Bodies distort gravity with bends, angles, and arches, interpolated with jumps, turns, spins and kicks, as the dancers fight for control and balance. A member of the Forsythe company once told me that in creating a new work, the choreographer would give them a seemingly impossible series of physical commands that they would have to work out. The result is movement that looks like it has been pushed to the extreme, while Willems’ edgy score punctuates the dance with its relentless cannonade of chords, growls and pings. The movement and sound are perfectly matched, very modern, very sleek and very commanding.
In contrast, Approximate Sonata 2016 is a series of five finely crafted duets performed by four couples utilizing some of the National’s strongest women — Sonia Rodriguez, Hannah Fischer, Svetlana Lunkina and Tanya Howard. Their partners are technical wizards that Karen Kain has brought into the company in recent years, respectively, Spencer Hack, Christopher Gerty, Félix Paquet and Kota Sato. The physical movement is tell-tale Forsythe with the added elements that duets offer, like push/pull, shifting weight, and sliding control. The look of the piece is calculated, precise, stretched and tightly wound. Willems has augmented his usual clanging chords with more measured filler sounds for a more full musical background. The duets are carefully nuanced and subtly different. The stage seems to crackle with tension and intention. The striking partnering seems, and I know it sounds odd, benignly confrontational.
For those ballet fans who think about Forsythe only in terms as described above, The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude is a genuine surprise, because Forsythe does a Balanchine turn by making ballet vocabulary look fresh and rejuvenated. To perform this work, the dancers all need classical chops to the max. Three ballerinas in tutus (Hannah Galway, Chelsy Meiss and Calley Skalnik), and two danseurs noble (Naoya Ebe and Harrison James) perform traditional ballet moves powered by steroids. The Allegro Vivace from Schubert’s Symphony No 9 is heraldic, grandiose and majestic, and Forsythe’s choreography is in speed-demon mode to match the optimism and exuberance of the music. The dancers literally fly across the stage. While the men do virtuoso tricks, the women execute intricate point work, forever spinning and turning. The physicality is relentless. Forsythe has even thrown in Balanchine’s wave effect, where a move is repeated in staggered beats by successive dancers. It is classical ballet forced through a wind tunnel, and if the piece were any longer than twelve minutes, the dancers would be in a state of collapse. Corps member Skalnik has been given leading roles before so she already has my eye, but clearly someone to watch is newcomer Galway. Both young women hold their own with accomplished first soloist Meiss, and principals Ebe and James.
While this program does show the National’s dancers at their best, it somehow feels incomplete. I needed a fourth piece.
Finally, I want to make a personal plea to the National about its programs. The production data on the ballets is separated by several pages from the cast lists. Please put the information together so one doesn’t have to keep flipping back and forth.