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Stars of the White Nights Festival
Forsythe Evening: ‘STEPTEXT’, ‘The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude’, ‘In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated’

Neo-classical made new

by Catherine Pawlick

June 6, 2004 -- Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia

The fifth night of the Century of Balanchine celebration in St Petersburg brought not Balanchine or Petipa but rather one of the newest choreographers on ballet’s world stage. The premiere of three William Forsythe works appeared in electric freshness on the Mariinsky stage, at times puzzling the audience and at others times holding their utmost attention.

In the final panel discussion as part of the “A Century of Balanchine” conference at the Hermitage Theatre, Pavel Gershenson, assistant director of the Mariinsky Ballet, commented that the Mariinsky Theatre “could not cope with (dancing) Forsythe without (having danced) Balanchine’s repertoire.” The observation is an adept one, for when watching a work by William Forsythe, one soon realizes this is Balanchine taken one step further. It is as if one is watching a variation on Balanchine, a blood relative who might have branched off in another direction, straying even further from classical constraints and exploring in more depth the limitations of movement, momentum and technique.

In “STEPTEXT”, the house lights remained on when the curtain rose, and indeed many audience members were still too busy chatting or finding their seats to notice. The result was general surprise as to why the usual lights-down, conductor-up process had not been adhered to. Further bewilderment followed as the sound system began in fits and starts – no doubt intentionally but seemingly unintentional to the audience. The lights and music would continue to stop mid-phrase throughout the piece, while dancers continued dancing to their own beat, or stopped to casually walk in normal, non-balletic form, to another side of the stage, slouching, fixing a pointe shoe, generally just existing on stage. After a while it became clear that Forsythe was pushing the limits of the conventional ballet structure as we know it, eliminating nearly everything except the movement itself, which continued regardless of lights, music or fellow dancers.

The language of Forsythe in this ballet is coherent and unique, if strange. The dancers communicate to each other through a series of bent elbow hand gestures (almost like dance sign language), and an audience member nearby was heard to say aloud “this is not a ballet.” And that perhaps is the influence of Balanchine – stripped of tutus, plot and setting, down to simple leotards and electronic music, and complex, speedy movements, Forsythe’s “STEPTEXT” is new neoclassicism. Arms and legs trace rapid circles in the air (not unlike Alonso King) and momentum is shifted on the spot, direction changed, each step vastly different from the one previous. Natalia Sologub was the lead in the ballet, and she has a visible mastery of the Forsythe language. Clothed in a simple red unitard, she interacted with one of three men –Andrei Ivanov, Mikhail Lobykhin or Maxim Krebtov – alternately, at times shaking away an arm that grabs her, wishing instead to walk alone or to initiate her own steps. While partnering with one of the men, at times the other two would carry on a pas de deux of their own, crossing each other’s paths, preventing steps or dancing side by side. “STEPTEXT” is all about movement and boundaries, themes central to Balanchine, but here taken one step further.

“The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude” opens to women in lime green disk tutus and men in maroon boy shorts and fitted leotard tops. The movements in this ballet come from someplace within the torso, but the overall flavor is slightly more classical. Croise devant tendus, done with one leg and then the other, suggest Balanchine, while unique turns like a low degage devant suggest more modern steps. This ballet is a busy one to watch. The movement rarely stops. Irina Golub, Svetlana Ivanova and Marina Zolotova danced alongside Maxim Ziozin and Alexander Kulikov.

“In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” was undoubtedly the evening’s dessert. Stripped again of tutus, but not of pointe shoes, the ballet is performed to electronic music, everyone in green leotards and black tights. Daria Pavlenko danced the lead, although in this ballet nearly each dancer has solo time on stage, and the idea of hierarchy is almost nonexistent. The ballet opens with a few dancers standing casually on stage, the girls stubbing their pointe shoes into the floor, waiting, as if during a rehearsal. Then, led not by music, although dancing to it, they begin their movements, quick arm circles traced in the air, with plenty of pushing and pulling. The dancers seem to extend their limbs in every direction, testing the limits of flexibility and motion whether dancing alone or with a partner.

Movement is done either to the music or in spite of it, but the electronic sound seems merely a backdrop for the essay in human extensions on stage. At one point a man is measuring the space around himself with an invisible tape measure – small touches like these suggest mime, as well as the individual’s focus only on himself. There are plenty of swivels, abrupt head turns, arms locked into straight positions, chasses done in modern combinations with an underlying ballet vocabulary, but fast -- the movement comes from an arm, shoulder or leg rather than the center of the torso or chest. Other dancers on stage included Sofia Gumerova, Ekaterina Kondayurova, Elena Sheshina, Yanna Selina, Ksenia Duprovina, Andrei Merkuriev, Anton Pimonov and Mikhail Lopukhin. Selina’s very upright carriage stood out from the crowd, as did Lopukhin’s jumps and solo work. The Forsythe ballets certainly leave food for thought regarding the journey ballet has taken on the world stage thus far, Balanchine’s role in its evolution, and what the future may hold.

Edited by Jeff.

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