Artifact, Sadler’s Wells, London


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The Independent Culture

William Forsythe’s Artifact is self-conscious and self-aware, a ballet about being a ballet. As dancers run through patterns or wind themselves into fractured duets, curtains descend with a thump or speakers try to pin down an act of memory. The Royal Ballet of Flanders could be tauter in Forsythe’s patterns, but push confidently through his games.

For the past seven years, Forsythe has been the Antwerp company’s main calling card. It has been directed by Kathryn Bennetts, a close associate of Forsythe, one of the world’s most influential choreographers. Now Bennetts is leaving, resigning in protest after a row with the culture minister. She leaves a company with a much increased profile, a regular guest at festivals – later this month, Artifact will be part of International Dance Festival Birmingham.

Artifact, created in 1984, was one of Forsythe’s earlier postmodern works. A woman in period costume and a powdered wig asks us to “step inside”. She burbles through intricate, self-correcting speeches: “When I stepped inside, I remembered what I should have seen”. Kate Strong has a coy, chanting delivery that makes the role very self-dramatising, and less funny than it can be. She flaps her arms in mannered, swooping gestures.

Nicholas Champion is the second speaking role, clutching a megaphone and muttering about rocks and dust. Eva Dewaele is the third character, a silent figure in grey body paint, who reaches up from trap doors or drifts like a ghost through the action. Around them, the dancers move in big block formations, doing drill to Eva Crossman-Hecht’s insistent piano music.

Artifact is full of deliberate chaos, with collapsing scenery, screaming matches and blackouts. In this early work, Forsythe sets them against insistent patterns and distinctive characters; in later works, he’d be much more arch with similar material. 

In the second movement, danced to Bach’s Chaconne, Forsythe pushes soloists forward, then interrupts them. Two couples dance fast, aggressive duets, with the curtain falling and rising on them. The soloists show speedy attack, diving into the splintered steps.

Around them, the corps need more drive. Forsythe gives them unison arm movements, half-military, half ballet class. The moves lack scale, without enough stretch in the upper body. The dancers do look at home inArtifact’s fast transitions, its switches from random to regimented movement.

Until 21 April. Box office 0844 412 4300. Touring to International Dance Festival Birmingham, 25-26 April. Box office 0844 338 5000.