Pushing the envelope. It's a strange phrase, is it not? It appears to have crept into general use in the late 1970s, having originated in the field of maths, where the "envelope" describes "the locus of the intersections of consecutive curves". Within that locus, then, is charted territory. Pushing its limits enters the unknown.
The American choreographer William Forsythe has been pushing the envelope for ballet for the past 30 years, reorienting it away from its identification with decorous 19th-century stories and reshaping it as an artform of the here and now.
It was Forsythe, in his work with Ballet Frankfurt in the 1990s, who would start a performance before the house lights had dimmed, sending panicked patrons scuttling to their seats. It was Forsythe who defied opera house protocol by using taped music, very loudly and very obviously, flipping the "on-off" switch seemingly at random. It was Forsythe, too, who redefined the performing space by stripping the stage back to the brickwork. And Forsythe who took dancers moulded by classical technique and gave them microphones and ungainly moves. In short, he lobbed a live grenade into the laps of those who'd always seen ballet as picturesque and safe.
But has the shockmeister run out of steam? It looks that way from this low-key, three-night showing from the Forsythe Company at Sadler's Wells. A late-in-the-day change of programme didn't bode well. And nor did the pervading absence of any sense of occasion. The first piece, performed by four guys in work vests on a dusty bare stage, to no music but their own puffs and grunts, lasted all of 19 minutes, followed by a 20-minute interval. It's a rum do when you find you've spent longer at the bar than in your seat.
Study #3 is more substantial, but its material has been recycled from earlier work. While Forsythe might argue that the re-use of tropes is what classical traditions are about, the knowledge that this is a re-tread is a definite dampener.
The dancers are superb in their origami pliancy, with Forsythe's long-term muse, minuscule Dana Caspersen, a stand-out. The choreography's lithe but wibbly lines, like regular symmetrical ballet viewed in a fairground mirror, is occasionally enthralling. But the stubborn refusal to light or dress the dance or dancers in anything that might be perceived as flattering serves up the equivalent of an undressed bowl of lettuce. Worthy but dull.
Sampled returns to Sadler’s Wells for two nights only with a taster menu of dance: £8 standing, £12 for a seat. In this year’s line-up, Stuttgart Ballet’s excerpts from John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet, hip hop from Brooklyn visionary Storyboard P, a world champion tango showcase, and Jasmin Vardimon’s new work for the National Youth Dance Company (Fri & Sat). A bargain.