The Forsythe Company, Sadler's Wells, London

Forsythe saga takes dark turn

Forsythe is the big-name opener for this year's Dance Umbrella, the admirable autumn festival of contemporary dance. Though this programme is Forsythe's mixture as before, the festival has caught him just as he changes direction.

His 20 years as director of Ballett Frankfurt ended last year, after the Frankfurt city council planned to close the company down in favour of something more traditional. Protests followed, and Forsythe found the funding to start a new troupe. The Forsythe Company, which kept half the Frankfurt dancers and much of the repertory, is less than a year old.

These four pieces were all made by Forsythe for Ballett Frankfurt. Forsythe makes aggressively athletic ballets for other companies, with yanking limbs and hard, fast pointework. For his own dancers, he's more likely to break dance up with words, philosophising, props or random activity.

Stephen Galloway, who designed the costumes for the whole evening, keeps dressing the dancers in synthetic and very unflattering shorts or trousers. The clothes are almost pointedly nasty: too drab for theatrical costumes, too fussy for neutral practice dress.

In The Room as It Was, seven dancers sidle about the stage, twitching and flailing their limbs. As they move, they gasp and puff, making a soundtrack of breathing. Forsythe breaks up moves. His dancers lunge, bumped along by the impulse of a swung leg, then stop, turn pigeon-toed, let a knee sag or hitch up a shoulder.

Sometimes the dances overlap. Two women sit down and flex their turned-in feet, not quite in unison but with matching awkwardness. Other dances walk on or off, adopting the same trudging stroll.

Jone San Martin, who moves with bold authority, stretches out one arm. A man walks past her hand. There's some audience laughter at the missed connections, but the dancers remain glumly isolated, barely responding to each other. Seconds before the end, the black backdrop lifts, showing a more brightly-lit stage and two dancers with their backs to us.

The four men in NNNN are stuck with one another, but they too look isolated. The first walks on holding up one hand, shaking it as if something were stuck to his fingers. A second man walks on, also slapping his hand against shoulder and thigh. Enter two more, and all four of them line up, link and tangle arms, try to unhook them or to tidy up the pattern. Then they do it all again, faster. They churn through these steps for a whole 20 minutes. The patterns are intricate, the dancers accurate.

of any if and is determinedly obscure. Two readers sit at the back of the stage, whispering words we can't hear. Over their heads, there are metal racks filled with words, written in white on black cards: "Of the"; "melting"; "thunder"; "there". They're just legible from mid-stalls; I'd be surprised if anyone further away could see them. A couple dance one of Forsythe's dislocating duets, legs kicked up high, a woman holding on to her impassive partner as she tilts off balance. They vanish behind screens, reappear, keep dancing. The racks of words are raised and lowered. With dim lighting and Thom Willems's electronic score, the piece is relentlessly and drearily obscure.

In One Flat Thing, reproduced, the dancers yank metal-framed tables about. They drag them into place with a clatter, then dance on, around and under them. Willems's music is full of shrieks and rumbles, matched by the thump of moving furniture. A few dancers wait at the back of the stage; everyone else keeps dragging themselves up, lying flat, crashing on.

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