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Ballett Frankfurt
'The Room As It Was,' 'Duo,' '(N.N.N.N.),' 'One Flat Thing, reproduced'

One last dance

by Mary Ellen Hunt

June 5, 2004 -- Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, CA

Whether intimate or in your face, American choreographer William Forsythe's highly distilled and analytical ballets have often incited controversy. But now that the German-based Ballett Frankfurt, which opened a three-day run at Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall Thursday night, faces dissolution, audiences have just one last chance to see Forsythe's legendary company on its farewell tour of the United States.

Ballett Frankfurt might not be everyone's cup of tea, but the distinctive and innovative Forsythe is, and will remain, quite simply one of the most influential forces in contemporary dance, having invented a fractured, speed-of-thought method of dancing that has inspired scores of emulators. He's staged works for companies worldwide, including the San Francisco Ballet, and choreographers such as Alonzo King carry the stamp of his style into their own work.

The company's current program, which features four West Coast premieres, hardly gives local audiences a broad sense of the varied work that Forsythe has been doing in the 15 years since the troupe's last Bay Area visit. After all, Ballett Frankfurt hasn't been here since "Miami Vice" and Milli Vanilli were around, and a lot of things have happened in the intervening years.

One of the most controversial events was the attempt in 2002 by the city of Frankfurt to cut the ballet entirely from its arts budget, essentially forcing closure. Perceived as an attempt to oust Forsythe in order to replace his modernist aesthetic with more palatable classical ballets, the move sparked worldwide outrage in the arts community and the city eventually backed down. Nevertheless, only a year later Forsythe announced that he would resign when his contract finished in 2004. Although he'll start his own smaller, private company, it feels like the end of an era.

The quartet of works on this program does show Forsythe at his most austere, and sometimes frustrating. With all the whittling of the company's shoestring budget, one suspects its ballets have only become starker in recent years. Still, the high, charcoal-colored scrims that wall off the stage and the relaxed rehearsal clothes also serve to throw the dance itself into gripping high relief. The thing that matters most here is movement, and Forsythe has stripped away all the extras to reveal it. Even Thom Willems' normally raucous scores are like dimly heard echoes in the first three works -- like a palimpsest under the dance.

In "The Room As It Was," eight dancers twist themselves into knots and then unwind with silky grace, allowing the most extreme movements to extend from their bodies as a natural outcome of actions as mundane as walking. The work retains Forsythe's trademark improvisational feeling, even though there are carefully placed moments of synchronicity that demonstrate the choreography is completely under control.

Moving to the sound of their own breathing -- studied huffing and "whooshes!" -- the dancers synchronize with each other mysteriously. The lightning shifts of weight and careening at odd angles into and out of one another's personal space give the impression of a living moving sculpture.

Dancer Richard Siegal creates highly specific movements and cleanly parsed phrases that evoke imagery and emotion without ever implying too much of a story. And the articulate and mobile Dana Caspersen, Forsythe's wife and one of his leading dancers, suspends in a slow cantilevered lift that takes your breath away.

Forsythe's dancers are clearly individuals. Consequently, one of the great pleasures of his works is seeing how the choreography coalesces, relying on a shared sense of motivation rather than drill-team precision to tie things together. Nowhere was this quality more obvious than in his 1996 piece "Duo."

Jill Johnson and Natalie Thomas take the stage dancing only in the front apron under harsh fluorescent lighting, dressed in dark leotards with sheer mesh tops that not only show bare breasts, but also the monumental, molded quality of their torsos. Under such exposed conditions, the pair manage to match perfectly, not by doing the same steps, but apparently by coming from the same motivation. There is visceral pleasure in watching disparate staccato solos suddenly click into synchronicity.

Similarly, in "(N.N.N.N.)," the four men -- Cyril Baldy, Amancio Gonzalez, Georg Reischl and Ander Zabala -- seem to know preternaturally where each person will be. Reminiscent of the jazzy "Cool" number from "West Side Story," this athletic encounter uses disjointed parallel phrases of movement to suggest a world in which a different set of laws applies to physics.

At times, Forsythe's abstractions stretch on. A program with works that have scarcely any sound or music can sometimes tax the patience, and at one point, the audience seemed to completely lose focus and a cacophony of coughs erupted spontaneously.

Nevertheless, anyone who left at the second intermission missed the most dazzling work of the evening -- the tumultuous "One Flat Thing, reproduced," an extravaganza of organized chaos.

As it opens, a rush of 20 dancers races toward the audience hauling heavy metal tables behind them, arranging them into regimented lines so that the design of legs almost resembles a model of crystalline structure. Like particles trapped in the maze, 14 of the dancers intricately weave in and out of the narrow aisles, skid across the tables, swing over them and maneuver with daredevil speed. That kind of precision can give you chills.

When the current tour finishes later this month, the company will disband, and the city of Frankfurt does not intend to revive it. Forsythe will then launch a new, far smaller troupe of his own, based in both Frankfurt and Dresden. However, he does not plan for it to be like this one. Ballett Frankfurt, apparently, is one thing that cannot be reproduced.

This review first appeared in the Contra Costa Times.

Edited by Jeff.

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