In presenting three flagship American ballet companies for the Celebrate Forsythe Festival, the Kaufman dance series at the Music Center has stepped away from its usual fare: predictable, easy to like dancing, and programming dedicated to a single company. San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and Houston Ballet, all companies with experience dancing widely varied repertories, came together Saturday in a remarkable program of choreographer William Forsythe’s works that revisited productions originally made over the last 30 years for vanguard European companies. For all three companies, the works presented are new to their repertories.

ballerinas in a tendu croisé in fondu position in Forsythe's Pas/Parts
San Francisco Ballet artists in "Pas/Parts" − Photo: Erik Tomasson

Opening the program was Pas/Parts, a remake of a Paris Opera Ballet work revised, as Forsythe says, to rub out some of its original “unnecessary” modernism in order to make it more classical. Set against long time musical partner Tom Willems’ electronically sampled musical score, it moves through a long arc of twenty-one ensembles and smaller scale combinations. Less clanging and abrasive than some of his other works (it still uses some of his signature colors, notably a percussion sample that sounds like glass shards shaken in a can) Willems’ score sounds more like accompaniment than music on a responsive, equal footing with the dancing. Disrupting that relationship was the only section in the work that found some musical synchronicity and a moment of repose away from Forsythe’s extroverted ballet movements, a brief and engaging duo danced by Sofiane Sylve and Carlo Di Lanno. Pas/Parts gains momentum as it progresses, building on reintroducing dancers in different configurations. Joseph Walsh was excellent in his stage consuming solo which cut through the audience reserve and got him some deserved applause as he flew off the stage. The opening section with its Forsythe-designed steel grey lighting and towering walls provided a space that looks eerily empty. The company looked fierce and muscular dancing Pas/Parts, fully in charge, and unhindered by the work’s obvious technical challenges.

2 ballerinas in bright green tutus in an attitude croisée on pointe
Leta Biasucci and Margaret Mullin, Pacific Northwest Ballet, in "The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude" − Photo: Angela Sterling

In the middle was The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. A quintet from a larger work, it is a complex, witty, and mannered romp through the final movement of Schubert’s C Major Symphony (The Great). But in spite of ballet speed turned up to the maximum, the PNB performance never managed to fully keep up with Schubert’s blisteringly fleet music or its lightness. On Saturday the most eager and accomplished participant in the dancing ensemble was Angelica Generosa whose speed, brilliance, and on stage charm looked truly thrilling and exact.

Artifact Suite danced by Houston Ballet--it premiered there this September--pairs Forsythe’s hyper kinetic ballet language as well as the kind of theater dance devices from Forsythe works such as Loss of Small Detail and One Flat Thing, Reproduced. It is a sprawling two part odyssey full of dance but also standard issue Euro trash expressions (exposed lighting, an open backstage, theatrical disruptions, etc.) that European opera houses have owned and promoted over the last three decades. The opening section, set to Bach’s D Minor Chaconne for solo violin, pits two sets of partners (Forsythe calls them Pas De Deux 1 and 2) against the background movements of the whole company. The company as a whole operates something like a chorus. At the conclusion of the chaconne section they stride across the stage like the ranks of opposing armies leaving behind them a cleared battlefield.

ballet duet: one female on pointe in a side penché held by partner
Katharine Precourt and Linnar Looris, Houston Ballet, in "Artifact Suite" − Photo: Amitava Sarkar

Part II places the men and women from the chorus (all thirty-eight of them) front and center in large groups of unison choreography. The music is a set of bleak improvisations loosely based on the Chaconne for piano played live from the pit on Saturday by Margot Kazimirska. Bach’s Chaconne announces itself as a work of scale, and grandeur, and the follow through here takes up that notion with a stage full of dancers whose virtuosity and precision at times threaten to overwhelm the music and our ability to keep track of it all.

In Artifact Suite, the music and perhaps ballet itself—both are coded 18th relics--are the artifacts that underpin a work of phenomenal imaginative detail and virtuosity. It’s an exhausting journey of reinvention with no clear destination. Houston Ballet gave a convincing performance that felt full of the kind of edgy attention and concentration that a new acquisition brings. It was our good fortune to catch them taking on an old work, revitalized, and on the upswing.

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