Title: Catapulted Into the Present Tense
Author: Roslyn Sulcas
Date: April 17 2008
Publisher: The New York Times
The Kirov Ballet's performances at City Center over the last two weeks exemplify the way that classical dance can appear dazzlingly lightweight, almost entirely divorced from the content that once rendered this work meaningful to its audiences. But ballet can look and feel as contemporary as any other art, and on Tuesday night the Kirov appeared in four works by Willam Forsythe that catapulted the dancers into the present tense.
Mr. Forsythe, the American-born choreographer, is regarded by many in the dance world as the most important influence on ballet since Balanchine. (Others consider him as - in dance terms - the devil.) The four works on this program are not new. "Steptext," a distillation of Act II of the full-length "Artifact," was choreographed in 1985; "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated" for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1987; "Approximate Sonata" and "The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude" in 1996. But without any kind of narrative they are the stories of ballet in our time, the sequels to Balanchine's ground-breaking extensions of classical technique.
This is not to say Mr. Forsythe is Balanchinian in tone, even if there are influences in some elements of his style: the dizzying, off-balance extensions of academic ballet positions, the athletic virtuosity, the speed and propulsiveness, the emphasis on doing rather than interpreting. But his work is not primarily a response to the textures of a score, and his movement possesses a kinetic complexity that takes far more liberties with ballet's vertical planes and effortless equilibrium.
The Kirov company, which did not take on Balanchine's work until the end of the 1980s, first performed the Forsythe program in 2004, and it dances Mr. Forsythe's ballets with a go-for-broke enthusiasm almost entirely lacking in their account of the 19th-century repertory. In many ways the fit is a natural one: Mr. Forsythe's use of movement emanating from the center of the back, the high-held arms and rotated elbows are simply the everyday stuff of Kirov training. The fit is less easy, though, when it comes to the feel for an interior rhythm and a way of individually shaping dance phrases.
In "Steptext," a quartet for a woman, in a lipstick-red unitard, and three men, to fragments from Bach's Chaconne from the Partita No. 2, Diana Vishneva dances with a breathtaking intensity and a burnished, astonishing rapidity and fluency of movement. "Steptext" plays with theatrical conventions: the house lights go on and off; the music is abruptly, repeatedly cut. The effect is to sharpen our attention and our hunger for the beautiful, sweeping movement.
The piece is partly an essay on partnering. It demonstrates a constant realigning of weight and balance between dancers that make explicit the muscular tensions that ballet usually masks. Here Ms. Vishneva's three counterparts (Igor Kolb, Mikhail Lobukhin and Alexander Sergeev) are also remarkable, though they don't always show their independence as dancers, even while partnering, that the choreography calls for.
"In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated" suffered most from the relatively small City Center stage, and from too-bright lighting, far less sculptural in effect than the choreographer's original design. Set to Thom Willems's ticking, crashing score, this ballet is all about the cloistered world Mr. Forsythe found at the Paris Opera. The nine dancers - working, experimenting and trying to outdo one another - are real people, eyeing their rivals and friends from the side, trying out new ways of moving. All, particularly the superb Ekaterina Kondaurova and Elena Sheshina, danced with playful virtuosity, but the work badly needs more rhythmic nuance.
Before "In the Middle" came two works Mr. Forsythe created as part of the full-evening "Six Counter Points." "Approximate Sonata" is a meditative series of pas de deux, lighted with painterly beauty to a muted piano score by Mr. Willems. Like "Steptext" and "In the Middle," it is about the work of dancing and the intimate collaborative relationships among its four couples were finely delineated.
"The Vertiginous Thrill," on the other hand, is about performance, Mr. Forsythe's witty nod to ballet's history. Petipa, Bournonville and Balanchine are all invoked in this Champagne bubble of a dance, set to the final bouncy movement from Schubert's Symphony No. 9. Here Mr. Forsythe's love for ballet and dancers shines through. It's froth and fun, he seems to say, and also a simply astounding thing for the human body to do.