Before I saw Pacific Northwest Ballet’s all Forsythe repertory The Vertiginous Thrill of Forsythe, I never realized that in some ways, the avant-garde contemporary ballet that thrills me has more in common with the straight-laced classical ballet that puts me to sleep than it does with anything that came between.
The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude
To me, classical ballet, with its tutus and rigid choreography limited to named steps, has always seemed more like practice drills than performative dance. Six pliés, four fouettés… The first piece in the Forsythe rep was as much a celebration of the technical as anything by Petipas. Although my daughter was convinced the dancers’ Seussian tutus represented lily pads, there was no story or metaphor behind the classical movements Forsythe choreographed. Vertiginous Thrill committed the steps to the service of the overall composition, the point of the dance was exactitude.
Back in the day, X-Games were about steez. Land an impossible trick and walk away like you didn’t notice what you just, don’t shout, “Did you see how high I got?” Back then I wondered who judged a sport that was so new you didn’t have any retired pros. I never found out who the judges were, but I did get confirmation they weren’t the same folks as the athletes. Coaches and handlers figured out that judges gave higher scores to competitors who looked like they were stoked by their performance, and steez went away. I miss it. Ballet dancers perform at the same level as extreme athletes, and in ballet, steez is still the name of the game.
Steez is cool, but it does make audiences forget that even the most basic moves you see on stage are literally impossible for most humans. Yes, this is classical dance set to Schubert. But within this context, dancers are experimenting with center of balance and cheating gravity. When you see a wobble on landing, a partner whose foot makes contact with a stomach, a dancer swaying en pointe as if blown by a breeze – it’s a reminder that you are watching traditional dance stretched to the utmost limit of the human body. As the boarders would say, these dancers are progressing the sport.
And the fact that’s it’s beautiful to watch? Style points. Mad style points.
A history of ballet in nine pas de deux on a bare stage. In pale leotards, couples dance to Handel. The movements are familiar and lovely. As each couple is replaced by another, the costumes and the music become darker, the movements unnameable in the traditional French terminology of classical ballet until a couple in purple is all jerky shoulders and flexed feet. Stark lighting throws each pair into contrast. They dance in chiaroscuro; sometimes only silhouettes are visible. A couple in royal blue fades to black as the lights go down, one white leg suspended in midair gleaming in the last of the light. Then there is Bach, and once again light. A mobius strip of a tutu highlights the continuity of dance tradition. It ends where it began, with Handel’s mincing, sprightly grace.
In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated
It’s the oldest of the three, but still the most transgressive. It’s set to a recorded electro-industrial score by Thom Willems and Les Stuck that straddles the line between music and noise – rhythm and sometimes melody can be found in the series of percussive clanks and booms that sound like synthesizer effects buttons. Dancers’ movements are as inhuman as the soundtrack. Sometimes they follow the lines on the floor like beads on an abacus, sometimes they move around the stage like the blinking lights on a real-time subway map. Their gestures become increasingly mechanized and rigid; each repetitive movement is part of the whole, but working in isolation like cogs and wheels and levers. Then a dancer spots a ballerina across the stage, runs to her, touches her shoulder. She stops, looks at him, and shakes her head. They part, and walk away from each other, human dancers once more.
Even as a fan of old Einsturzende Neubaten and Skinny Puppy, this clanking, driving noise generates a stress response in my body. Here is the rigid technicality of Petipas without its symmetry. It would be off-putting if it weren’t so captivating. It’s a horror film and I can’t look away. Tradition tilted over chaos; this is the vertiginous thrill of Forsythe.