Think of it as the terpsichorean equivalent of a mic drop—times four, or Beyoncé before Beyoncé (but a decided precursor to “Formation”). However one chooses to look at it, William Forsythe’s “Artifact Suite,” performed over the weekend by Houston Ballet (who premiered it just last month), was an anarchic, jaw-dropping stunner. One third of a unique bill—a trio of American ballet troupes each performing a Forsythe opus—“Artifact” is a one-act, forty-minute abstraction of the his 1984 “Artifact,” the first piece the American-born choreographer made for his now disbanded troupe, Ballett Frankfurt.
“Suite,” made in 2004 for Scottish Ballet, is punctuated in the first half with the repeated rise and falls of a thudding curtain, while a 30-plus member corps changes positions in a militaristically driven, geometric fashion. Soloist Bridget Kuhns (Other Person), allocated semaphore arm gestures to her balletic disciples, the dancers having transformed with Rockette-like precision during the curtain drops.
Two couples, Karina Gonzalez and Ian Casady, and Jessica Collado and Chun Wai Chan, also turned the notion of deliberate pomp into a kind of beautiful jeopardy, with off-balance extensions and surprising, swift shifts of weight then recalled in unison group dances. In other words, this is not your mother’s ballet.
A convention-smashing groundbreaker more than three decades ago, this choreographic masterpiece fiercely resonates today. Music is also key to the work, with the first section a recording of Bach’s Partita No. 2, and the darker sounds of Eva Crossman-Hecht’s piano score, performed live by Katherine Burkwall-Ciscon, in a semi-structured free-for-all that fueled the second half of the dance.
Akin to watching splintered scenes from a film (Tanja Rühl is credited as lighting technician), the riveting drama plays out between the couples, as well as in the inexorable formations and re-formations of complex patterns and lines. Talk about building tension! While Forsythe has referred to ballet as his “mother tongue,” one that can be analyzed then radicalized, the end result is a thorough manipulation of the art form that still, as evidenced in “Suite,” contains references to Balanchine (albeit on steroids), notably “Rubies” from “Jewels,” with sparkling leotards and black tights.
A brilliant cacophony of movements that fold in on themselves, inverting and reversing amid the sometimes jagged rhythms that are also unleashed in strange and hypnotic ways, the whole of “Artifact” is the sum of its exquisite parts—and then some.
The program opened with San Francisco Ballet performing “Pas/Parts 2016,” a work made in 1999 for Paris Opera Ballet and extensively re-imagined earlier this year. Featuring another large cast, the work captivated with a number of solos, duets and trios, the ensemble also stellar. Set to the jangly, thrashing and occasionally ominous sounds of frequent Forsythe collaborator, Thom Willems (with a nod, perhaps to the predatory vibrations heard in Jaws), the work was muscular and metronomic, as if atoms were, at times, colliding in this twitchy, circus-like universe.
Indeed, this was an otherworldly organism intent on fracturing the air in a relentless barrage of leaps, arabesques, swiveled hips and eye-popping extensions. Sofiane Sylve made easy work of her balances, her lovely arms also a sight to behold. When partnered with Carlo Di Lanno, the pair had a sizzling and joyous chemistry.
Also showcasing a superior skill set in their duet, Maria Kochetkova and Francisco Mungamba, while Joseph Walsh, a mind-boggling human fulcrum, one able to shift his weight in a heartbeat, proved riveting in his solo. Walsh was an able partner, as well, his duet with Julia Rowe near the 40-minute work’s end, flashes of unbottled energy.
Forsythe supplied the scenic and lighting design (a bare stage with both stark and translucent tones on view), the better to pinpoint the parade of dancers that also featured Frances Chung, James Sofranko, Lorena Feijoo and Diego Cruz. A kind of Snapchat/Instagram tableau for today, the fusillade of bodies kept coming, their strength, and command of the Forsythian vocabulary not only remarkable, but also supremely satisfying.
The concert’s third work, “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude,” danced by five members of Pacific Northwest Ballet, premiered in 1996, and is set to the final movement of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9. An homage to Petipa and Balanchine, with conventional partnering and flourishes of classical technique, this 12-minute number was, however, somewhat of a letdown.
Yes, the quintet—Leta Biasucci, Carrie Imler, Margaret Mullin, Benjamin Griffiths and Jonathan Porretta—comported themselves ably, but their all-too-constant smiles belied the difficulties they seemed to have in the filigreed footwork, entrechats and cabrioles, notwithstanding.
Also performed at a breakneck pace, the work features the women in Stephen Galloway’s chartreuse tutus, albeit ones that resemble extraterrestrial martini glasses, with the dancers zipping through their solo variations and duets, as well as a genre-warping group dance accented by twisting torsos. Lighter on the thrill than the vertiginous factor (turning and whirling on an axis), the dancers, alas, appeared to have stamina issues.
Still, the concert was truly a celebration of the renegade Forsythe, who, having spent 40 years in Europe and is now the artistic advisor of Glorya Kaufman School of Dance’s Choreographic Institute (at the University of Southern California), is a most welcome addition to the Los Angeles dance scene. Please keep those pointe shoes and perspectives coming, sir!