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Forsythe's Stunning workwithinwork

Innovative Works
American Ballet Theatre
City Center
New York, NY
October 24, 2003

by Gia Kourlas
copyright ©2003 by Gia Kourlas

It is far too easy to criticize the name of American Ballet Theatre's Friday-evening program—Innovative Works—but I can't resist. It's all marketing. Aesthetically, there was one such ballet—William Forsythe's wonderful workwithinwork. Framing it were two pieces so bereft of a creative spark that instead of pushing the form in a new direction, they only served to flatten it to choreographic mush. Nacho Duato¹s Without Words, a vapid dance created for the company in 1998, costumes four couples in unflattering nude bodysuits (Duato's design), boasting intricate partnering that rambles into mind-numbing mediocrity. It is not so much a piece as an exertion—mindless toil for the audience as well as the dancers. The closer, Within You Without You: A Tribute to George Harrison, wouldn't even cut it as choreography for a music video. The only thing Without Words and Within You have in common with Forsythe's mysterious gem is the word WITH in the title.

Set to Italian composer's Luciano Berio's crackling Duetti per due violini, Forsythe's ballet starts out with a feeling of dancers fooling around in the studio. Their instruments are killer bodies. The ballet itself is a puzzle of duets and trios, which begin and end abruptly or flow into the next with the ease of a walk that just happens to change direction. For a brief moment, perhaps halfway through, these encounters—full of Forsythe's trademark slashing arms and legs, off-kilter torsos and whipping turns—began to feel, if not tedious, then somewhat aimless. But what may have appeared at first to be random (a description consistent with so many new dances) ingeniously knits itself into a cohesive ballet, in which individual phrases crystallize into something complete and serious. As the curtain fell on the 15 dancers, it became clear that every movement was there for a reason. It was intelligent without being pretentious. But don't read the program note, which I suspect was penned by the choreographer's wife, the dancer Dana Casperson, and describes the ballet with phrases like, "winding with a gorgeous, intricate grace through a series of jewel-like scenes, the dancers create an evolving, baroque body of time." The dance, mercifully, doesn't work that hard to get its emotion across. It just is.

Part of the fullness of the experience, of course, has to do with Forsythe's understanding of the theater. Brad Field's enigmatic lighting is harsh, casting shadows on parts of the stage and bright streams of white lighting in others. Stephen Galloway's costumes for the women—satin and Lycra shorts and skimpy halters or tanks in hues of browns, blues and grays—rendered the dancers amazingly sexy without making them look like strippers, or worse, girls dressing up as women. The men's costumes weren't as successful—Lycra bottoms, cropped at the knee shortened the leg; their muscle t-shirts gave their upper bodies a boxy silhouette.

The performance itself was uneven in parts; still, moments of tentativeness didn't disgrace the effect. Perhaps the newness of Forsythe's distorted style of ballet made the dancers too intimidated to turn the choreography into a dreadful ABT fireworks display. Obviously, they need more stage time to understand how to stumble, recover and turn a difficult step into something daring that still holds onto the integrity of the movement, but when they did let go of their inhibitions it was stunning. Carlos Lopez, who performed an extended solo, beginning at the left edge of the stage, crossing the back and concluding on the right, was a picture of focus and abandon. His particular task—to mirror the odd twittering of the violin music with brisk b-boy fluidity—was executed with breathtaking focus. It was as if the movement was initiated in his wild and frantic arms, and his body had no choice but to follow.

The ballet also marked the debut of the fabulous Eric Underwood, who recently left Dance Theatre of Harlem to join ABT's corps. His long legs and wonderfully juicy attack was exactly what the ballet called for; the principal, Paloma Herrera, always distinguished in more contemporary works, added a lovely, honest sensuality to her formidable muscular strength (she is looking more and more like a ballerina). Kristi Boone and Misty Copeland, two strong corps dancers, sparkled, performing with necessary aggression and articulation, but without strain. Soloist Michele Wiles was a portrait of glorious abandon. What workwithinwork gives ABT, finally, is a democratic ballet, in which the women are just as important as the men.

The program concluded with the depressing Within You Without You: A Tribute to George Harrison. Here, falling under ABT's definition of innovative are four choreographers: David Parsons, Ann Reinking, Natalie Weir and Stanton Welch. It's difficult to say exactly what the worst sections are—Weir's melodramatic Within You Without You is undeniably stupid. But the finale, by Parsons, should probably take the honors. Clearly inspired by the last ten minutes of any dance class when students are given the opportunity to really move full out and leap, all it does as serve as a display for monotonous mugging. Julie Kent, bless her beautiful heart, tries to sell it with all her might and practically does. When the lights dim and a portrait of George Harrison appears on the back of the stage, Kent, as the last dancer to remain on the stage, salutes his face. A less, to use the word, innovative ending would be difficult to conjure. But the biggest tragedy is that workwithinwork was paired with such inferior dances. It should have been on a program with Tudor or Petipa or Balanchine—all part of ABT's City Center season. That would have been a revelation. It would not only have shown how far ballet has come, but at the same time, how it has the potential to be good.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 4
October 24, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by Gia Kourlas



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on October 24, 2003