Cloudy Kylián, Neenan drifts & Forsythe plateaus

Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet in William Forsythe’s Artifact Suite
Photo: Alexander Iziliaev

By Lewis Whittington for The Dance Journal

Choreographer William Forsythe was in Philly weeks ago to set Artifact Suite on Pennsylvania Ballet and the inside story was that he couldn’t have been more engaged with the dancers and willing to tweak his revered opus for them. This full company piece proved a perfect prelude leading into PB’s performances of George Balanchine’s Jewels, that living encyclopedia of neoclassical ballet. Balanchine is the company’s DNA rep and it even figures in Forsythe’s choreographic quotes, and editorial departures that seek to move past Mr. B’s defining era.

But before that marquee draw, ominous clouds breaking on a steely precipice loomed upstage in Jirí Kylián’s Forgotten Land, the opening work on this contemporary program. The ballet is set to Benjamin Britten’s already dark cinematic orchestral Sinfonia da requiem and the atmospherics frame a dance landscape for six couples who seem to be in some state of psychic distress, marital discord, or accidentally drifting into a vodka induced Martha Graham nightmare.

The men dressed in industrial uniforms, the women in weighted gowns that flair dramatically. And so they do as the women are flung around, when they aren’t hunched in torso contractions or cryto-Biblical poses. Less tortured moments have the women support the men in a role-reversed, almost tango style frieze. The men skid around the stage at point, engagingly, but oddly out of nowhere and the coda with couples pulled apart by the slashing movement are intriguing but strangely out of place.

Brooke Moore and Francis Veyette illuminating Kylián’s intended dramatic intensity with the best reserve. Daniel Cooper and Lauren Fadeley go for more of a frenzy phrasing that rightly punctures the ballet’s gravity.  Considering some of the choreographer’s other work, this piece stuck as over-boiled, leaving the dancers with too much heavy lifting to do on some clammy ground.

Next, Matthew Neenan’s At Various Points is whimsical and dark, especially with the quartet of dancers in earthy Faunesque danseskins, suggesting a pack (unlike the obliviously doomed cult from Forgotten Land) but lurching toward metaphysics that eventually reads as unfinished draft, with squirrelly progressions. Set to Felix Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, the quartet of game dancers- Carolin Curcio, Andrew Daly, Alexandra Hughes and Eric Troupe- seem stranded, even with Mendelssohn’s profound musicality.  Hands in fouffy clawing motions, some flat-footed chasses punctuate, but these look like quickly grabbed choreographic doodles. It half-uncorks in the middle with quartet entwinements that don’t look like Balanchine and some lyrical jetes, executed with flair by this quartet, each dancing with fine reflexivity to  Mendelssohn. Course it was being punched through another dimension by pianist Martha Koeneman, on a raised platform in front of the stage, a one point, Neenan had the dancers seemingly floating over her piano- freeze frame and cut.

Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet in William Forsythe’s Artifact Suite
Photo: Alexander Iziliaev

For the revised ’Artifact Suite’ Forsythe edits out his original spoken word narrator, opting for the presence of ’The Other’ danced by Curcio. In Part I she instructs with a series of dancy hand signals, then the troupe adopts sharp Busby Berkeley chorus lines, then in part II, she scribbles air calligraphy which seemed to erase dance categories for something more relevant to individual artistry.

Curcio is great, even if by now, this literalness is actually, very distracting, but it makes an important editorial point. Forsythe, like Balanchine knows how to educate an audience, even if they aren’t aware of it. The safety curtain drops down unexpectedly, and the ensemble is reconfigured when it goes up. Forsythe invert perspective and erases expectation.  After a long pause where the Bach music mashes into psychedelic, Part II has the dancers in blue and black tights and this corps scrambles in seeming free dance.

Gorgeous stage pictures as the full company stream in and around Forsythe packs the stage with breakout solo, duos and trios in their own zone. Hard to take our eyes off of Moore, Julie Diana and Amy Aldridge, for instance, in a lazar trio, but you have to pan and scan not to miss equally spellbinding motion around the stage and then it dawns on you that this is a dance happening, just as much to do with craft as performance.

The quintet of men wittily references Balanchine’s Agon and the women’s unison line phrasing ala  Serenade, has diamond suppleness. There are segregated mens and womens’ sections, and this bodes very well for the PB gents leading into the anniversary year. They are strongly uniform, when called for.

Meanwhile, The duet couples- Gabriella Yudenich and James Ihde – Brooke Moore and Lorin Mathis- attacked the demanding choreography with precision.  Forsythe moves them through classicism and expressionism that requires elite partnering skill- tilted releases, razor angles, flying lift patterns that keep bloom and implode with intimacy past any sexual connotations. Ihde’s solid technical skill and stage presence so interlocked with Yudenich’s earthy artistry in their sections. Moore, with unfussy and thrilling phrasing. Mathis is one of the emerging dancers who can seemingly handle himself no matter what the style.

Forsythe constructs the architecture in front of your eyes and, like Balanchine’s best ballets; the dance creates its own environment and logic. This work showed PB at the end of a season of many performances where the full corps performed so admirably, capping it off with Artifact Suite, in a way that couldn’t have been a more promising a finale leading into a new era.

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