"Artifact" - Next episode of the Flemish Forsythe saga
Royal Ballet of Flanders
22 May 2009
by Marc Haegeman
copyright 2009 by Marc Haegeman
I suppose it's impossible to find anybody interested in dance these days who has never heard or seen anything of William Forsythe. His presence and influence in the last two or three decades is so significant, one surely must have been living on a different planet to have missed it all. And yet when I attended the revival by the Royal Ballet of Flanders of “Artifact”, the first piece Forsythe originally created for his Frankfurt company back in 1984, I couldn’t help thinking that total unfamiliarity with the man and his work might have been the most profitable situation in order to enjoy the evening.
“Artifact” was the Royal Ballet of Flanders’ second and final major premiere for this season (after Marcia Haydée’s new production of “Swan Lake”.) Director Kathryn Bennetts, who has been Forsythe’s ballet mistress for fifteen years, secured a second evening-length work of her former boss for her company after “Impressing the Czar” three seasons ago. Mindful of the success that Flanders scored with “Impressing the Czar”, here and abroad – they recently received the ‘Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance’ following performances at London’s Sadler’s Wells - taking another of his full-length creations on board seemed like an unavoidable follow-up.
Seeing “Artifact” in Antwerp had me wondering though whether it wouldn’t have been preferable for this talented company to acquire the suite instead of the complete thing. Others like the Paris Opera or San Francisco Ballet have done this to their great advantage. The full-length “Artifact” on the other hand doesn’t particularly seem to have aged well, nor is it Forsythe’s most accomplished opus - and if one buys from a second-hand store, one better makes sure it’s the best available for there’s no return policy. The most rewarding moments for dancers and audience occur in the second part, which amply demonstrates the choreographer’s once new but still compelling movement style, yet the remainder of the show adds little or nothing to the company’s glory, or indeed to the audience’s money. The trouble is that while Forsythe is at his most memorable in his pure dance passages, the accompanying theatrics simply don’t stand the same repeated viewing. Unfortunately in the full-length “Artifact” it’s the latter that rule the proceedings.
The endless absurd babbling and shouting contests by two non-company artists (both Kate Strong as the woman in historic dress and Nicholas Champion as the man with the megaphone are longtime Forsythe regulars), the unconventional presentation, the lighting effects and abrasive theatrics, the sound overload (even the taped Chaconne from Bach's Violin Partita No. 2 in Part 2 is deafening) – no doubt it must have been pretty dazzling and, above all, “aren’t we smart” back in 1984, especially when accompanied by extensive notes in the programme book, expanding on what we have to see and think, and backed up with quotes from, of all people, French post-Structuralist writers. Yet, like it or not, we have moved on since. The shock of the new has long withered and while the repeated efforts throughout the evening to steer the audience in its perception have always smacked of corny sensationalism, any production that twenty-five years after its creation still pretends to be smarter than its audience comes alarmingly close to being preposterous. The extensive programme notes may have disappeared, on stage it’s still business as usual. Isn’t it funny how quickly novelty turns into dated curiosity.
The Royal Ballet of Flanders is a highly flexible company. With the proper coaching the dancers can work miracles and it’s nothing short of amazing how they were able to adapt to Forsythe’s world in such a short time span. Remembering their tentative and rigid attempts at “In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated” in 2004, during the previous director’s final year, one notes that their progress has been immense. Now they throw off with gusto and conviction their prince- and swanlike manners for the frenzied deconstructionist energy, pulls and twists required by Forsythe. Yet one wished he would also have given them some moments were they can demonstrate their dramatic versatility, either as soloists or as an ensemble, instead of his one-track aggressive mode, which wears itself out towards the end of the evening. Forsythe may use his dancers in an extreme, physically demanding way – and when performed this sharp, it sure is a thrilling ride - but he nonetheless uses only a small part of their potential. They approached the choreography with their usual conscientiousness and enthusiasm, even though it brought them basically nothing new or different from what they had already done in the previous Forsythe works – “Impressing the Czar”, but also “New Sleep” and “Herman Schmermann”. Variations on a theme with different shades of colour; green outfits turned yellow and “Artifact” makes them all look similar again, in appearance and in steps. Even if dancers have been reduced to anonymous ciphers many times before, has it ever been in such a merciless way as here, barely allowed to register or to come out of obscurity - suggesting that Forsythe’s major concern was basically not dance ? The direction he took in the last years, had in fact been taken from the very beginning.
I note that Aki Saito and Wim Vanlessen, and Claire Pascal and Evgeny Kolesnik were the two couples in Part 2. Eva Dewaele was the perambulating barefooted figure in white. They gave it their admirable all, whether in the spotlights, in the grey area or in total darkness. Unfortunately there was far too little of them.
Photos by photos by Johan Persson.
Top: Wim Vanlessen & Aki Saito & ensemble
Bottom: Kate Strong