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The Forsythe Saga

By French Clements

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Ted Shawn Theatre, Becket, Mass., Aug. 14

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, William Forsythe approached canonization at Jacob’s Pillow last week. In Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s program of four dances, one was by Forsythe—the master of distorted hyper-ballet—while two, by Helen Pickett and Jorma Elo, worked strongly in Forsythe’s tradition. A fourth, by Itzik Galili, drew from a European mode broadly engineered by Forsythe and a few others.

Born in New York City, Forsythe left America more than 30 years ago to perform in Germany. After adopting Frankfurt as a base in 1984, he’s never really looked back. It’s hard to sum up his early contributions to contemporary dance. Think of taking apart a house and putting it back together so that the roof is on one side, the walls are piled up on the front lawn, and the floor, now made of glass, is glowing. It’s still a house, kind of. Forsythe’s early work revolves around classical ballet. But where ballet is predictable, right-angled and warm, Forsythe presents ambiguity, hyperextension and tempered rage. Forsythe’s genius was to do Balanchine one better, extrapolating points in cubic space to their unlikeliest end, creating freakishly attenuated lines that warp around each other. By setting harsh lights and evil-sounding music against his dancers’ carved-out shapes, he also pioneered a new stage aesthetic. If you’ve ever wondered why so many contemporary dances are spot-lit entirely from above, he’s your answer.

For all the upsides to imitating Forsythe, there are just as many downfalls. But in programming terms, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet created a net positive. Just when the program turned a mite pretty—in Pickett’s opener Petal—it changed to dark humor, with Galili’s grotesque Chameleon. Though several works grew monotone, they found breathtaking final images.

About that monotone quality, which may be the major flaw of this style: heaps of abstraction and a dearth of context will soon drive an audience to frustration. (Though Elo’s abstraction was so unusual that it created its own context.) As with artists like Duchamp and Banksy, frustration may be the goal, to break us down and force our reconsideration of long-held criteria for beauty. In the sublime opening of Slingerland, Gavin Bryars’ sharp violin drones on while the partners, Katherine Eberle and Sam Chittenden, manipulate their limbs in a taut, even rhythm. Ten minutes later, the same drone, same rhythm. Suddenly, the violin breathes to a close and the low lights flicker and blink off, while Eberle, held on point by Chittenden, lets her balance wander elliptically away. Most notable about Slingerland: It’s not alienatingly anti-classical. In fact, things are fairly old-school. You’re focused on the woman, and how beautiful she is. Fine details cement success, including Eberle’s stiff yellow tutu and her spastic little feet in lift sequences. She especially nails the ineffable “melting through” positions, a trademark of Forsythe’s work that’s hard for novices to grasp.

Just ask the insecure-looking dancers for Petal, who totally missed Chittenden and Eberle’s tensile, down-low feel. Choreographer Pickett, a former dancer with Forsythe’s defunct Frankfurt Ballet, united a load of ideas here, but the dancers were so tentative (or emphatically corny) that the choreography didn’t register as complete. Pickett smartly merged selections by Philip Glass with similar music by Thomas Montgomery Newman, and the quirky results kept you guessing at the piece’s path, right up to its pulse-quickening conclusion. The Pillow’s erratic program credits don’t list who created the set, but it’s Petal’s finest feature. Forming a luminous, open cube are three enormous white sheets, which, a la James Turrell, assume Todd Elmer’s lighting in Easter-egg yellow and pink.

Quasi-Turrell appeared in 1st Flash, by Finland’s Jorma Elo, the resident choreographer at Boston Ballet. As the title suggests, Elo’s work opened in darkness but for a polygonal plane of harsh white light (designed by Jordan Tuinman) 15 feet above the stage. For a few minutes, it looked like a projection, but as the stage lights came up, the illusion was lost to a solid light-box suspended from clumsily tied cables. No matter, the dancers’ arrived for a new kind of thrill, squiggling their bodies and hurtling through the futuristic tricks that characterize Elo’s post-Forsythe choreography. Where Forsythe deals in cubes, Elo works almost solely in planes, folding and intersecting levels, always finding new negative space to exploit.

Itzik Galili, an Israeli, showed Chameleon, which felt at first like the odd one out. Five women, seated in a line of green chairs, pulled their faces in and out of ugliness. As individual details diverged, psychosis set in. They tickled themselves and counted their fingers, which folded inward to blow out their brains. Stylish stagecraft linked Chameleon to its companions, as did its dancers’ indelible beauty, no matter their furious grimaces and contortions.

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