Royal Ballet Flanders at Sadler’s Wells – Artifact


Character in Historical Costume – Kate Strong
The Other Person – Ewa Dewaele
Character with Megaphone – Nicholas Champion

Part 1

Artists of Royal Ballet Flanders

Margot Kazimirska (piano)

Eva Crossman-Hecht – Music

Part 2

Dancers – Aki Saito, Wim Vanlessen, Yurie Matsuura, David Jonathan
Artists of Royal Ballet Flanders

Nathan Milstein (violin, recording)

Johann Sebastian Bach – Music [Partita for Violin No.2, BWV1004 – Chaconne in D minor]

Part 3

Dancers – Ashley Wright, David Jonathan
Artists of Royal Ballet FlandersWilliam Forsythe – Sound mixPart 4

Artists of Royal Ballet Flanders

Margot Kazimirska (piano)

Eva Crossman-Hecht – Music

William Forsythe – Choreography, Lighting & Design

Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler

Reviewed: 19 April, 2012
Venue: Sadler's Wells Theatre, London EC1

William Forsythe, once enfant terrible of ballet and now something of an éminence grise, laden down by awards and honorary doctorates, created the section act Artifact back in 1984 when he assumed the directorship of Frankfurt Ballet. That company was for twenty years to act as his collective muse, allowing him to explore further his vision for ballet, to push the boundaries. In 2004 the experiment ended with the Company’s closure, so it is with a depressing sense of repetition that we learnt recently of what is in effect the dismissal of Royal Ballet Flanders’s dynamic director Kathryn Bennetts by the Flemish administration. Bennetts, for fifteen years Forsythe’s Ballet Mistress in Frankfurt, has put this company on the dance map, not least with their performances of his 1988 Impressing the Czar in 2008 and now with Artifact. To have been twice dismissed by the provincial money-men is an unenviable record for the doughty Bennetts. One hopes that the company will not, with the appointment of some ‘yes’ person as director (it is alleged that the posts of running the opera and ballet companies will be combined into one) slide back into obscurity.

Still, the Royal Ballet Flanders were on blistering form at Sadler’s Wells in a work which is very nearly a masterpiece. Forsythe created a ballet about ballet, a direct reference and a homage to the ‘classical’ works such as Swan Lake with its four act structure. It opens with Kate Strong as the Character in Historical Costume speaking the words “Step inside” and closes with Nicholas Champion as the Character with Megaphone stating “Step outside” (translations of the basic ballet terms pas en dedans and pas en dehors as well as more esoteric references to the nature of performance in general); in between Forsythe explores the classical dance idiom, dissecting it, stretching it, jumbling it up and refashioning it in his own manner. In his choreography and his vision of the stage picture (design and lighting are his too), Forsythe is nothing short of brilliant, a true homme du theatre who with movement and lighting creates breath-taking images and scenes.

The stage is bare, the dancers in the simplest of leotard-like costumes (except in the third iconoclastic section where it is more street wear), yet the disposition of the dance forces and the lighting effects (using the vertical, diagonal and horizontal) fill with visual delight. The heart of the ballet is the second section set to Bach’s extraordinary Chaconne in D minor, a sort of ‘white act’ for this classically structured work: the ‘corps de ballet’ frame the action (as they would in Swan Lake) as the ‘principals’ perform their pas de deux, except here Forsythe gives two pas de deux (all praise to Mesdemoiselles Saito and Matsuura and Messieurs Vanlessen and Jonathan who threw themselves into every demand made on them with both aplomb and control) which never fuse into a pas de quatre. Forsythe’s brilliant coup is to have a front curtain fall at various junctures, only to rise again with the dancers disposed differently, lighting altered. The timing of the curtain falls indicates a musical change and is far from arbitrary and what they achieve is a neat demarcation between the differing moods and tempi of the Chaconne.

The movement vocabulary Forsythe uses (given what we in London learnt of it from the performance of several of his works at The Royal Ballet in the 1990s) is trademark – lunges, hyper-extensions, bends and hard-edged pas de deux – but, with the passing of the years and the directions that subsequent choreographers have taken, now seems rather lyrical, less a break with the past of Classical Dance but more a continuation. The final dance section where Forsythe deliberately demonstrates his indebtedness to Balanchine and marshals his considerable forces (over 40 dancers) in blocks and waves of movement grabs attention. Margot Kazimirska, who played Eva Crossman-Hecht’s demanding compositions in the first and fourth sections to the manner born, (she should, as she has performed Artifact around the world) was superb.

But Artifact is a compromised work, compromised now by the two speaking characters, whose dated burblings add little and at times detract a great deal. The purpose of stalwart Nicholas Champion, who has been lugging the megaphone around since the work’s inception, is too obscure for me – he whispers words such as ‘dust, sand, rocks’ at various junctures and wanders, tapping at one moment, frankly getting in the way at many others. Kate Strong is a fascinating figure – imposing, with a seductive voice, her perorations thereby almost fascinating. Given the avowed purpose of Artifact, her authentic ballet mime gestures at the start were mesmerising, and particularly by one question “can you see what I say?”, which is, of course, the sole purpose of ballet mime. Despite her manifold qualities, we see a little too much of her, as she strides round in historical costume, rather more like an unwelcome Lilac Fairy from The Sleeping Beauty.

Part 3 is one of alienation: the dancers engage in what seems ‘free’ choreography, large flats are constantly knocked over and Strong strides about, bodice open, swearing more and more furiously – it is deliberately irritating, off-putting, given that ballet is all about rules, a choreographic chaos from which we all wish to be rescued. However, it simply tries too hard and is too much like those oh-so-provocative theatrical works of the 1960s and ‘70s which sought to ‘shake up’ a complacent audience, to challenge their bourgeois perceptions of what theatre was. Here, it is simply a bore and I sincerely hope not an evocation of the chaos from which Forsythe consciously steps back to ‘save’ ballet in the final fourth section – playing God, even in ballet, is not to be encouraged.

Caveats apart, Bennetts and her engaged and engaging company must be praised – Forsythe is a major force in the dance world, and it is good to see again an important work from his ‘golden age’ of choreography. Artifact may not be a masterpiece, but turning a deaf ear at certain moments and considering some of what passes itself for classical choreography, there are moments when it can sure seem like one.

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