American Taps into Culture of Paris Dance ; Palais Garnier Program Shows William Forsythe's Forays with Its Ballet

By Sulcas, Roslyn | International Herald Tribune, December 29, 2012 | Go to article overview

American Taps into Culture of Paris Dance ; Palais Garnier Program Shows William Forsythe's Forays with Its Ballet


Sulcas, Roslyn, International Herald Tribune


A Palais Garnier program shows the choreographer William Forsythe's forays with its ballet.

On May 22, 1987, two female dancers in green leotards and black tights stood on the empty stage of the Palais Garnier in a pool of light. The women, hands on hips, swiveled a point-shoe tip on the floor idly, glanced up at two golden cherries inexplicably suspended over their heads. Then one gave an almost imperceptible shrug, walked off and the other began to dance, suddenly galvanized by a rhythmic, electronic crash of sound.

The choreographer was William Forsythe, an American; the work was "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated," and a new era for ballet had begun. It wasn't Mr. Forsythe's first ballet for the Paris Opera (Nureyev, then its director, had commissioned "France/Dance" in 1983), and it was hardly his first demonstration of the way he would push Balanchine's extensions of the classical vocabulary into even more extreme terrain.

But "In the Middle" brought together Mr. Forsythe's brilliantly innovative rethinking of ingrained balletic conventions about balance, weight, effort, line, presentation, illusion and gender with theatrical panache, and it catapulted him into the international spotlight.

Twenty-five years later, "In the Middle" is a repertory staple for ballet companies, and Mr. Forsythe's influence on classical dance is virtually ubiquitous. "In the Middle," which the Paris Opera Ballet has been performing as part of a William Forsythe/ Trisha Brown program at the Palais Garnier (through Dec. 31), remains a fascinating work -- a daredevil exploration of the limits of ballet technique informed by a thrilling suspense.

But the real draw of this program is two other Forsythe pieces, created for the Paris Opera in 1999, and rarely seen since. It's hard to know why because both "Woundwork 1" and "Pas./Parts" are superb works of craft and imagination, evidence of a choreographer at the height of his powers. To date, they are the last pieces that Mr. Forsythe has choreographed for a company that is not his own, and his last ensemble pure-ballet works. (He has since worked almost exclusively with his own troupe, the Forsythe Company.) The time span between "In the Middle" and the later ballets is 12 years; the span of a generation when it comes to dancers. And indeed, the young corps members Mr. Forsythe showcased in 1987 (the etoiles-to-be Sylvie Guillem, Laurent Hilaire, Fanny Gaida, Isabelle Guerin and Manuel Legris among them) were mature artists (and in the case of Ms. Guillem, had left the Opera) by the time he returned.

Mr. Forsythe speaks of that maturity in the magisterial "Woundwork 1," a looping, weaving, golden-hued quartet set to sustained, layered, melancholy lines of sound by Thom Willems, who also composed "In the Middle." And in "Pas./Parts," a large-scale, 15-dancer piece, he offers a kind of exhibition of the layers and levels of accomplishment in the company.

Vital to all these works is Mr. Forsythe's canny understanding of the culture of the Paris Opera Ballet, with its formal hierarchies of levels and its deeply rooted competitiveness, which begins at the Paris Opera Ballet School, where students are ranked from top to bottom each year. This ranking continues through professional life - - once in the company, promotion can only be achieved through an annual competition. …

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