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Back to the Barre

William Forsythe is a dancers’ choreographer. Dancers love working with him, he challenges their minds and their bodies, his knowledge and understanding of the vocabulary of ballet is profound. In the studio, the atmosphere is one of co-conspirators, playmates. All this comes through in his most recent creation, a collaboration with New York City Ballet’s Tiler Peck called “The Barre Project (Blake Works II)” released on March 25, with a repeat performance on March 27. (The platform is CLI Studios, an online clearinghouse for dance classes.)

Tiler Peck, Lex Ishimoto, Roman Mejía, and Brooklyn Mack in “The Barre Project (Blake Works II)” by William Forsythe

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The piece, actually a collection of short movement studies, is a 30-minute-long love letter to dancers, to technique, to the possibilities of the ballet barre. The main impression is one of joy, and of hunger: these four extraordinary dancers, Tiler Peck, Lex Ishimoto, Roman Mejía, and Brooklyn Mack, can’t get enough of these steps, of this highly sophisticated movement. They savour every tendu and tilt.

The instigator here was Peck, who had worked with Forsythe once before at her home company, New York City Ballet, during a revival of the 1992 ballet “Hermann Schmerman.” She reached out to Forsythe by email, he responded, and the next day, if the press materials are to be believed, they were at work over Zoom.

More dancers signed on: Brooklyn Mack, formerly of Washington Ballet; Roman Mejía, a young hotshot at City Ballet; Lex Ishimoto, an independent dancer and choreographer who won the 2017 edition of So You Think You Can Dance. Over several months, they gathered via Zoom, Forsythe in Vermont, where he lives, the dancers in various locations around the country. The filming took place in an empty theater in LA.

Filmed and edited by Devin Jamieson, and lit by Brandon Stirling Baker, the five dance segments exist in place outside of time, infused with bluish light, with a barre at the rear. It could be outer space, or the garage next door. It doesn’t matter where. It’s a dance cocoon, a laboratory of steps.

Tiler Peck in “The Barre Project (Blake Works II)” by William Forsythe. Filmed by Devin Jamieson

Most of the movement occurs at, or near, the barre. Simple exercises morph into explorations and improvisations. Legs bend and straighten; feet perform quick, clean, batterie; torsos undulate; bodies face this way, and then that way. In particular, Forsythe shines a light on Peck’s speed and style, her pinprick rhythmic acuity and her ability to change direction and shape on a dime. Her feet shoot out like arrows beneath her, and her torso ripples and tilts, animated by the sharp electronic pulsations of the score, which is by the young British composer James Blake.

Mejía explodes with joyful bravura, Ishimoto is a wizard with turns, and Mack moves with elegance and focus. Each section is like a tongue-twister for the body; together, they become set of brilliant études, exercises for very, very clever dancers. Every so often one of them looks straight at the camera, at us, as if to say, isn’t this great?

In between these sections are two quiet meditations in which all we see are the dancers’ hands at the barre. Some sentimentality creeps in here, mainly via Blakes’s slightly weepy, highly processed voice. You either respond to that kind of music or you don’t—for me the emotion feels hollow, manufactured. But the point is made: dancers miss this contact with the wooden barre, this connection with other dancers.

The film also gives a peek into the process. We see the dancers at their computer screens, listening raptly as Forsythe explains how he develops movement ideas and runs “simulations” of the choreography in his head, so that “by the time I get to the barre to demonstrate, I’ve already done it, mentally and physically.” I’ve always been made slightly uneasy by the guru-like status given to Forsythe; the way the dancers hang on his every word. But it’s clear that the love and admiration is mutual. His aura is that of the master teacher, whose questions and suggestions stimulate and stretch the dancers.

Watching them explore the language of ballet through his brilliant combinations of steps is bracing, like seeing a pianist improvise at the keyboard, or a mathematician solve a riddle at the chalkboard. It’s dance as thought, taken to the next level.

Marina Harss

Marina Harss is a dance writer in New York, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine, as well as to Dance Magazine and Fjord Review. She is the author of a book about the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, scheduled for publication by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2023.



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