Skip to main content

Heather Ogden and Jack Bertinshaw in The Second Detail.

Michael Slobodian/Handout

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.

Story continues below advertisement

The Second Detail, which Forsythe made for the National Ballet in 1991, is also set to a score by Willems.

Karolina Kuras/Handout

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.

Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter