I’ve always believed that a work of art must somehow, implicitly, ask a question of the form in which it’s realized. I’d like to think that the U.S. choreographer William Forsythe might agree with me. His National Ballet triple-bill, Physical Thinking, which opened in Toronto on Saturday night, is a rich and vigorous interrogation of the classical medium. The questions he puts to ballet are often meticulously technical, asking what might happen if certain tried-and-tested rules were contorted or conventional phrasing performed at challenging speeds. But then his inquiry builds to the philosophical, probing the very definition of the form. Is it still ballet if you let the labour show? If the dancers talk to one another ? If there’s a palpable braininess, even irony, onstage?
In fact, you might say that Forsythe is to ballet what molecular gastronomy is to a home-cooked meal. Take the first work on the program, the company premiere of the 1996 ballet The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. Set to Franz Schubert’s stately Symphony No. 9, the 12-minute piece breaks down traditional balletic ingredients to create uncanny flavours.
In one sense, the structure and style are thoroughly classical, playing on clear positions, phrases and elegant carriage. But the choreography is discharged with such speed, momentum and complexity that it draws fresh attention to its nuts and bolts, in turn reframing our engagement with the content. So, when Forsythe introduces a technical innovation – a pirouette on pointe executed with a bent supporting leg, for instance – its strangeness crackles. We see its beauty (and difficulty) with a kind a microscopic closeness.
For the five dancers, the choreography requires an impressive nimbleness of both mind and body. Because the phrases are so incredibly dynamic and technically demanding, while cheekily retaining ballet’s convention of effortlessness, the dancers seem to be teasing us with their excellence and poise. They’re aware of the artifice of the whole endeavour – their awareness is part of the game. The ensemble is uniformly strong, but special mention might go to the two corps de ballet members who shine amid more senior dancers. Hannah Galway is dynamite with the details of quick allegro, and Calley Skalnik melds an athletic spirit with gorgeous buoyancy and grace.
Approximate Sonata, which Forsythe originally made in 1996 but revised for the Paris Opera Ballet in 2016, turns the tempo down a few paces. Set to the electronic music of composer Thom Willems, a frequent collaborator of Forsythe’s, the ballet makes beautiful use of stillness and space. The questions asked here are more in line with current discourse in contemporary dance, focusing on the dancers’ experience above performative effect. Structured as a series of four duets, with some gripping ensemble work in between, the piece pulls us into the slinking negotiations of each couple, who appear to create their own tensions and prescribe their own release. Curtains fall and blackouts occur in the midst of the action, as though the dancers move and practice only for themselves. We see the work happen; Sonia Rodriguez, in her 29th year with the company, whispers instructions to the relatively junior Spencer Hack and, as the two tussle for control, the device of creation feels exposed.
In The Second Detail, which Forsythe made for the National Ballet in 1991, the word “THE” appears alone in bold letters downstage, suggesting that definitive connections are important here rather than the verbs and nouns – i.e., the big steps. Also set to a score by Willems, the piece is an intricate ensemble work that plays with discord and syncopation. Some of the jazzy off-kilter hips and high battements might feel a bit nineties in tone, but the company’s energy and technical prowess remains formidable.
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