State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
October 18, 2018

For all intents and purposes, William Forsythe’s A Quiet Evening of Dance could be called ‘A Quiet Lesson in Dance’. The program of short works by the renowned rule-breaking choreographer offers audiences what might be described as an abstract journey through the history of ballet. Dowdy that may sound, the work as a whole offers an exhilarating and astoundingly sophisticated deconstruction of the genre.

The collection of short contemporary dance works – both original and reimagined extant choreographies – vary in tone and texture, but all share the same concern: ballet. But this isn’t ballet as you know it. This is ballet as Forsythe knows it, and he wants you to know it too. This is the choreographer’s primary language, and his fervent desire to present the form in new and alternative contexts is his departure point.

Jill Johnson and Christopher Roman in Catalogue. Photo © Bill Cooper

The works are presented in two acts. The first plays out like a series of masterclasses in which the dancers demonstrate various deconstructions and reinterpretations of classical ballet. In Catalogue, which is performed meticulously in silence by Jill Johnson and Christopher Roman, Forsythe returns to the initiation points of movement – the hips and shoulders – by exploring not only their conventional or known pathways, but the countless other creative possibilities that remain in virtual reserve.

The exploration slowly begins to encompass the limbs and every imaginable adornment and articulation they can achieve. What starts as a simple matter-of-fact front-facing demonstration of arm gestures, evolves into a mesmerising study of movement pathways and opportunities. Indeed, we are presented with a kind of corporeal catalogue, the language of which is familiar but not necessarily its composition.

Rounding out the first act are several other short works that offer different interpretations of similar themes. Of note is Dialogue (DUO2015) (a reworking of a Forsythe piece from 1996), in which two male dancers (Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts) engage in an increasingly virtuosic tête-à-tête. To only the sound of distant birds, the men perform quick and complex extended passages of movement, finding surprising moments of suspension before diving back into the next long and challenging phrase.

Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts in Dialogue (DUO2015). Photo © Bill Cooper 

The absence of music highlights the internal rhythm of the dance, which is sometimes vocalised through exaggerated breathing but mostly only discernible from the movement itself. Forsythe’s choreography is so inherently musical that the movement inscribes its own melodic accompaniment in the space.

If the first act is a lesson in alternative conceptions of balletic foundations, Forsythe’s new work Seventeen / Twenty One, which comprises the second act, is a kaleidoscopic reconstitution of the form. Through solos, duos and trios, the dancers offer a contemporary interpretation of the rules that governed early court dances under Louis XIV. The systems established in the first half of the program are now refracted, resulting in a densely layered celebration of the genre’s hidden potentialities. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s music, full of harpsichords and horns, accompanies the dance.

Here, Forsythe is in fine form and, it appears, having fun. There are hints of humour and self-awareness. The dancers wear arm-length gloves made of brightly coloured Lycra in an obvious indication that their limbs, and the choreographic embellishments they perform, are for our spectatorship. In another oblique reference to the performativity of the whole event, the dancers wear coloured socks over their sneakers; an adornment that functions only as a costume.

Brigel Gjoka, Riley Watts and Ander Zabala in Seventeen / Twenty One. Photo © Bill Cooper

Yet a further lens through which we are invited to view an alternative conception of the form is the movement of Los Angeles-based hip-hop dancer Rauf ‘RubberLegz’ Yasit. With an uncanny ability to rapidly and effortlessly entangle (and disentangle) his limbs, Yasit provides an interesting counterpoint to the other classically trained dancers. While his b-boying skills are no doubt impressive, his solo material occasionally feels disconnected from the rest of the ensemble. More interesting is Yasit’s interpretation of the shared scores and how the balletic system translates to an uncodified body.

A Quiet Evening of Dance offers a brilliant glimpse of Forsythe’s genius. There are layers of choreographic complexity here that cannot possibly be uncovered in a single viewing, or even a second. But there are other objectives in mind. Forsythe wants you to see ballet, and perhaps dance altogether, in a new light. And this we do, very brightly.


A Quiet Evening of Dance is at the Melbourne International Arts Festival until October 20

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Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine