Ballett Frankfurt, Sadler's Wells, London

Another Forsythe saga
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The Independent Culture

"Welcome to what you think you see." That greeting is uttered by the Person in Historical Costume in William Forsythe's Artifact, opening the short London season of his Ballett Frankfurt company. She adds the proviso "... I think", but – taking her at her word – I'll tell you what I think I saw.

"Welcome to what you think you see." That greeting is uttered by the Person in Historical Costume in William Forsythe's Artifact, opening the short London season of his Ballett Frankfurt company. She adds the proviso "... I think", but – taking her at her word – I'll tell you what I think I saw.

In Part II (out of four) I saw a pretty straightforward ballet, accompanied by Nathan Milstein's recording of a Bach chaconne. It consists largely of two overlapping duets performed with a large ensemble moving gently at the sides and back of the stage – remember the similar layout of the big "white" duet in Swan Lake? Two things differentiate Forsythe's treatment. One is that the front curtain drops suddenly with a heavy clonk, at apparently arbitrary moments, six times during the action, and when it goes up again the cast have completely rearranged their positions on stage.

More significantly, the actual movement in the duets shows the beginnings of Forsythe's stretched personal style (the ballet was made in 1984 when he became the director in Frankfurt). Think of the difference between Balanchine's early classical duets and the more contorted choreography of, say, his Webern Episodes or Stravinsky Violin Concerto; then develop those changes for another two or three decades, and you're about there.

This Part II is the best of Artifact. Part I is more like a game of charades, with the historical (at times almost hysterical) lady declaiming emphatically in dispute with a modern-dress man muttering into a megaphone. They go on at repetitious length about remembering and forgetting, seeing and hearing, stepping in or out, dust or rocks.

There is also another soloist, known as the mud woman, her tights, hair and flesh all grey, who slowly perambulates about the stage or stands as if controlling the large corps de ballet. (Is she perhaps our past, or our unconscious?) All this brings out what I take to be Forsythe's point about tradition and innovation, structure and disruption.

That section and Part IV are both performed to somewhat old-fashioned piano music by Eva Crossman-Hecht played by Margot Kazimirska, while Forsythe's own tricksy modern sound collage serves Part III. The ballet's second half repeats, modifies and underlines what went before, without necessarily adding a lot to it, except that maybe the ensemble get to dance more.

That would be more of a benefit if it were better done. The Frankfurt dancers are presumably excellent for Forsythe's creative purposes, but judged simply as presenters of the movement on stage they are only middling. Whether that is intrinsic, or the result of a too concentrated repertoire, who can tell? I can only say that the Dutch National Ballet, at the Edinburgh Festival a few years ago, gave Artifact more cleanly, sharply and emphatically – but that is no reason to spurn this opportunity to see the work that was an important step in its creator's progress.

Ballett Frankfurt's visit continues with 'Eidos:Telos' until 10 Nov (020-7863 8000)

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