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Kirov Ballet - London 2005 - Forsythe Programme

'Steptext,' 'Approximate Sonata,' 'The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude,' 'In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated'

by Stuart Sweeney

July 24, 2005 -- Royal Opera House, London

Speaking at a Ballett Frankfurt Study Day a few years ago, Deborah Bull told us about her experiences working with William Forsythe. She described the first time she had to rehearse one of his ballets in front of the choreographer, knowing that just because she had passed the test with his assistant didn’t mean she would please the chief. But rather than settle for safety first, she decided to “go for it” in her own way, and Forsythe approved.

So, while the Forsythe repertoire poses challenges to dancers due to the technical difficulty and the innovatory quality of the movement, having mastered the steps, the key factor is that “go for it” quality. Overall, the Kirov’s first Forsythe programme in London was fascinating, with the men utterly convincing as they attacked the off-balance choreography but the women a more mixed picture.

“Steptext” from 1985 pits a solo woman against three men and overtly challenges our underlying assumptions about the theatre experience. It starts without warning with the theatre lights up as Andrei Ivanov approaches the front of the stage and essays some sinuous body and arm movements, with his anchored legs spread wide. After a short reprise by Mikhail Lobukhin, Daria Pavlenko enters and stands on the spot making right-angled patterns with her forearms. As the work progresses, at regular intervals all the lights dim, while the dance continues unseen on-stage and the exquisite accompaniment, Bach’s “Chaconne from Partita no.2,” starts and stops in mid-phrase. Thus, both in terms of what we expect to see and hear in an opera house and the manner in which it is presented, we have all our preconceptions disrupted, just as Forsythe disrupts and reassembles the ballet vocabulary.

The trio of men, completed by Vladimir Shishov, attacked the mix of classical and off-centre steps brilliantly and established a competitive atmosphere with sharp glances. Pavlenko is a divine dancer, but her performance here was less convincing, despite the exquisite, sculptural shapes she created from time to time. The problem lay with her interpretation -- right from the opening forearm section, she seemed ill at ease and sometimes gave the impression of a sulky victim, as she was manhandled by her posse of pursuers. Here in the UK we are used to seeing Sylvie Guillem and Oksana Panchenko giving as good as they get in this role. Indeed, with Guillem, you sometimes wanted to tell the ref to stop the fight as the boys were taking such a beating. Pavlenko’s approach left the work with a hollow centre that the virtuosity of the performers couldn’t fill. From reports elsewhere, it seems that Diana Vishneva may have made more of this role in the matinee performance.

Although most of the programme consisted of works performed regularly by ballet companies around the world, Forsythe has taken the unusual step of giving the Kirov “Approximate Sonata,” the first of “Two Ballets in the Manner of the Late 20th Century” and, although London audiences have had the opportunity to see the second part, “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude,” this our first opportunity to see the full work from 1996. After another unconventional opening with Andrei Ivanov slowly walking to the front of the stage, gurning to a pop vocal and asking for and receiving instructions from a voice off-stage, he embarked on a duet with Evgenia Obraztsova, whose performance immediately reassured me that some of the Kirov women have fully mastered the Forsythe aesthetic with her ease in the mix of neo-classical and contemporary steps. In all there are four duets for eight dancers and an occasional solo or larger ensemble. This focus on partnering gives “Approximate Sonata” a more intimate feel than much of Forsythe’s work. All the dancing was admirable and at the end Obraztsova and Ivanov return and rehearse some of the material, discussing performance details and the curtain falls on her happily reprising an earlier section.

“The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude” is 12 minutes of neo-classicism on speed and one of Forsythe’s most frequently performed, but least interesting works, in my view. After the initial dazzle of the pyrotechnics, there seems little else, and poor sound quality of the recorded Schubert score and some out of synch movement from the women lessened the impact of this performance. Nevertheless, Leonid Sarafanov and Andrian Fadeyev reveled in the demanding choreography and Tatiana Tkachenko was sufficiently comfortable with the high pace to phrase the steps deliciously.

To close, we had the longest of the four works, “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” created in 1987 for Paris Opera Ballet with Sylvie Guillem in the central role. This will be one of the most exciting dance performances I will have seen this year, with all nine performers “going for it” with great confidence. Whereas the traditional Kirov aesthetic may be described as “nothing but perfection,” Deborah Bull recalls that Forsythe is relaxed about mistakes, in order to encourage risk-taking. This atmosphere was apparent, but there were few mistakes I could see as the dancers flicked out incredible extensions and darted around the stage. Unlike “Vertiginous,” the occasional unison sections were always together, adding to the power of the performances. Tkachenko impressed again, Yana Serebryakova, with blond hair swinging, attacked the choreography mercilessly, and the tall Ekaterina Kondaurova seemed to defy biomechanics with the flexibility of her dancing.

The three men, Maxim Khrebtov, Alexander Sergeyev and Mikhail Lobukhin continued the excellent male dancing we had already seen and gave fine support in the grounded duets, featuring weight transfers that reminded me of contact improvisation. In the lead role, Irina Golub was in her element with great pace and suppleness, but above all it was her phrasing that delighted. In the final duet, she even played with the choreography, half swooning in her partner’s arms. When the lights suddenly went out, I felt a deep disappointment rarely felt at the end of a work. I suspect that “ITMSE” will still be danced 50 years from now and upheld as one of the supreme examples of post-modern ballet. With the electrifying Kirov performances, its place in the A-list is assured.

The virtually full house gave the dancers ringing applause at the end and, hopefully, this will reassure promoters that mixed bills can be made to work for London audiences, with the right marketing. For myself, I am eager to see more of the Kirov performing the ballets of William Forsythe as well as the recent contemporary ballet addition, "Remembrance," by David Dawson and I hope that these successes will encourage further extensions beyond the classical and neo-classical repertory.

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