Three outstanding ballets by William Forsythe as Ballett Zürich mark his 70th birthday

Opera House, Zürich
January 11, 2020

Maggie Foyer

William Forsythe has just turned 70 and he celebrated the event in Zürich where the company presented a triple bill entitled Forsythe.

The Second Detail, the earliest of the works is one to keep any company on their toes. The clarity of the silvery grey box set and costumes and the technical language: ballet of thrusting modernity, brings each dancer into high definition. There are no supernumeraries, each dancer is challenged, and none fell short. The Second Detail, is an abstract ballet with personality and the quirky humour is a treat. Between the dancers there is an unspoken commentary, hinted at in a last-minute catch, a partner swept into a lift or a passing glance before a nonchalant walk off stage. The pointe work skids off kilter, the extensions stretch like elastic and snuck in between there’s a textbook entrechat six.

Anna Khamzina with Giulia Tonelli and Meiri Maida in William Forsythe's The Second DetailPhoto Gregory Batardon
Anna Khamzina with Giulia Tonelli and Meiri Maida
in William Forsythe’s The Second Detail
Photo Gregory Batardon

Thom Willems electronic score keeps a steady rhythm while the dancers move in contrapuntal complexity, weaving movement into the regular beat. The choreography is breathtaking with motifs repeating in canon or chorus. One moment the stage is filled with thirteen dancers, the next it’s just one, before a cluster of pas de deux couples arrive to share the space. The variety is endless.

Anna Khamzina gets the Issey Miyaki dress and charges in like an uninvited guest, hair array and barefooted to disrupt the sleek order, bringing all to final collapse. The ballet may be thirty years old, but the joy is timeless.

In Approximate Sonata, reworked for the Paris Opéra in 2016, Forsythe takes the classical pas de deux to task. There is plenty to critique in the traditional form; ballerina to the fore, lifted by the male porteur behind, as often as not with a face full of tutu. But ballet of the 21st-century is a quite different beast. In the hands of Forsythe, it’s cutting edge and performed by dancers of Olympian ability. The humour is subtle, the men protesting their traditional role somewhat more than the women and raising their status to achieve parity. Stephen Galloway’s costumes: couture black leotards for the ballerinas and bright pink tops and casual blue trousers for the guys, offer a neat comment.

Rafaelle Queiroz and Jan Casier in Approximate Sonata by William ForsythePhoto Gregory Batardon
Rafaelle Queiroz and Jan Casier
in Approximate Sonata by William Forsythe
Photo Gregory Batardon

I loved the gentle, goofy humour between Katja Wünsche and Matthew Knight as they took the duet to new spaces, while Rafaelle Queiroz and Jan Casier offered a more candid relationship defined by the crystal clarity of their technique. The third duet featured Khamzina drawing, with exquisite leisureliness, each morsel of beauty from her extreme développés while partner, Esteban Berlanga, showed his form in a lightning-fast virtuosic solo. Elena Vostrotina, always unmissable, and even more so in high-visibility, lime green trousers was beautifully matched with Cohen Aitchison-Dugas. They brought a sassy vibrancy to their overtly casual but fiercely competitive duet.

One Flat Thing, reproduced, is one of Forsythe’s most complex and intriguing works. The intermediary level, introduced by the tables, takes the choreography to new heights of invention. The oblong tables, noisily dragged on at the beginning, form a geometric grid to support the byzantine structure while the casual clothes, again featuring Galloway’s keen eye for colour, contrast the superb athleticism of the movements. The table tops, described by Forsythe as like ice: ‘unforgiving’, ‘translucent’ and ‘slippery’, form an alternative stage for sitting, supporting, sliding and standing while the limited space between spurs creativity in surprising ways.

Mark Geilings and Wei Chen in William Forsythe's One Flat Thing, reproducedPhoto Gregory Batardon
Mark Geilings and Wei Chen
in William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, reproduced
Photo Gregory Batardon

Each of the fifteen dancers is immersed in the task that seems to demand telepathic synchronicity in addition to skilful group co-ordination. They achieve this expertly while Thom Willems score of harsh, splintering sounds, creates an edgy urgency.

One Flat Thing, reproduced has the depth and substance for a doctoral thesis but is as well, a totally engaging dance work; and this, surely, is the essence of great art.