Edinburgh Festival: The angel has landed

Artifact Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

A prime function of Edinburgh's main-stage programme, to my mind, is to fill us in on major artistic developments that somehow passed Britain by. Chief among these in recent years has been the work of William Forsythe, the fearsome American choreographer, who, from his stronghold at Frankfurt Ballett, has singlehandedly redrawn the map of 20th-century ballet.

Until this year, British audiences had seen so little of his revved- up, elaborately deconstructionist style that it was hard to credit all the fuss that was being made of him in Europe, still less the fact that, in just a few seasons in the mid-1980s, he had turned a middle-of-the- road provincial German ballet company into a powerhouse of the avant-garde. It was so successful in every sense that the city's bankers have been tipping money into his lap ever since.

A visit by the Frankfurt company to Sadler's Wells earlier this year brought British audiences up to speed on recent Forsythe, but gave little idea of how he arrived there. Dutch National Ballet's staging of Artifact - a massive full-evening work he made for the Frankfurt Ballett in 1984 - plugs that gap.

It's grand, spectacular and charged with his trademark aggressiveness, yet also slyly comic in parts. The intricate stage patterning and svelte lines of dancers in academic work-out mood show Forsythe to be a direct successor to George Balanchine, our century's other great classical innovator. Artifact also shows him - surprise, surprise - to be hugely entertaining, easy to read and - shout it loud - not in the least pretentious.

The ominous Forsythe landmarks are all there. The stripped-down stage shows cables and heating pipes at the back. The safety curtain crashes down on dancers in mid-flow. There are stark juxtapositions of musical styles: a Bach chaconne, clangourous piano music (by Eva Crossman-Hecht) and a chaotic sound-collage put together by Forsythe himself which ends with someone on stage shouting "Will you shut the f--- up!"

Artifact is in four "acts", and though there's no plot, there is a clear theme - memory and the tricks it plays - and three named characters, two of whom speak. Kathleen Fitzgerald, in a glittery gown, is a genteel air-head hostess fretting, in a stream of cocktail-party consciousness, about what he/she/they always/never remember/forgot. Nicholas Champion, an elderly gent with a megaphone, wanders about peering glumly into black holes in the stage muttering about dust, and Veronique Lauwers is a silent, naked mud-smeared sylph, perhaps an emblem of our true blood memory that overrides the what, where and how.

Between these antics come extended swathes of dance for the corps. Forsythe deploys these 36 dancers in countless dazzling patterns: crisp swallow formations and tessellated triangles, or flanked along the wings like the wilies or swans of the old classics, performing identical movements with a stirring precision that makes you think less of armies than of symmetries of nature. Unlike Forsythe's later work, which appears to push bodies dangerously beyond their natural limits, the movement is rooted in classroom ballet-steps - skewed, off-kilter, but definitely there. Anyway, the steps are not the point. The main point of Artifact is the overall stage picture, at times so beautiful it borders on lush.

The brutalism we associate with Forsythe appears only briefly. A hell on earth heaves and spins with bodies which materialise one by one, as if from the flipped pages of a notebook; a series of scribbled-on white screens slap to the floor as memory-woman ripples through them. There is fury in some short duets - Harrier jet take-offs and wrenching backward leaps that make you blink at their implausibility. What's beyond doubt is that, in its opening dance show, Edinburgh has done its stuff.

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