Review: Royal Ballet Flanders - Artifact at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 19 - 21 April 2012
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 20 April 2012

The Royal Ballet Flanders in 'Artifact' at Sadler's Wells, April 2012. Kate Strong as "Character in Historical Costume". Choreography, lighting & stage design:William Forsythe. Photo:Bettina Strenske

Reviewed 19 April

The flame of creative genius in William Forsythe’s full-length works has been well and truly rekindled in Antwerp by Kathryn Bennetts. Formerly, the ballet mistress with Forsythe’s own (sadly, now defunct) Ballett Frankfurt for 15 years, Bennetts has set his work on numerous companies around the world and brought this intimate knowledge of Forsythe’s methodology and repertoire into the role of artistic director for the Royal Ballet Flanders. During her seven-year tenure in this job, Bennetts and her ensemble have made two brief trips to London: first with Olivier award-winning performances of Impressing the Czar (in 2008) and now with Artifact. On both occasions we have seen that the spirit of these large-scale Forsythe ballets lives on in Flanders, rather than in the smaller, independent dance company which Forsythe himself created after the closure of Ballett Frankfurt. Where the man himself tends to plough on ever further into new territories of dance creation, Bennetts has revived the best of the biggest in his past catalogue. The tragedy is that we watched Artifact in the sad knowledge that this legacy is to be ruptured when Bennetts departs the company at the end of her contract in just a few weeks’ time.

The demise of Ballett Frankfurt and the departure of Bennetts from Flemish ballet share the same monetary cause, but economic stresses seemed light years away from the feeling of benevolence and goodwill that flowed from the stage on this opening night at Sadler’s Wells. The two-hour experience was akin to being pampered in the most luxurious spa imaginable: a wholly refreshing, invigorating yet relaxing massaging of body and mind. True balletomanes will often experience that “hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck” tingle but with this performance that sensation of joy was not so merely localised. What a pity that it can’t be bottled and sold.

Artifact works on so many levels. It is both a fascinating exercise in amplified ballet – where virtually the whole encyclopaedia of technique is both attenuated and enlarged – and also in theatrical deconstruction. This is most obvious in the second part where the curtains fall in harmony with the changes in musical structure, with dancers moving unseen into different formations. Although Forsythe disclaims any such post-modern intention, the periodic disconnect between audience and performer has a powerful deconstructive impact.

Impressing the Czar was built around a pre-existing duet entitled In the middle, somewhat elevated that became the mid-section of the full-length ballet but is still more often performed independently: similarly, the mid-section of Artifact also retains a life of its own as the Artifact Suite, although mischievously I have always thought of it (with the dramatic frequency of the curtain crashing down) as “In the middle, somewhat interrupted”.

The set and music are also deconstructed throughout the work with the late Eva Crossman-Hecht’s score engaging extracts of popular show tunes alongside improvisations of Bach’s emblematic Chaconne from the Partita No 2 in D Minor for solo violin. This provides the music for the second part, which is then transcribed for piano and played at faster tempii in the following scene. Forsythe’s imaginative lighting designs, together with the use of a trap from which a hand occasionally appears, overlay an air of mystery onto an otherwise austere open stage, exposing the guts of the cavernous space beyond.

With little actual adornment, the opening and closing parts succeed in bringing a rich baroque flavour to contrast with the uniform greyness of the ensemble dancing. And what dancing! To see thirty bodies moving with such effortless grace in perfect unison – from simple balletic exercises to complex, swirling sequences – is a rare pleasure and the blandness of their apparel somehow seems to enhance the rich eloquence of their movement. While many spine-tingling moments come with the fierce electricity of this dance, some were reserved for the imagery of dancers ranged in stationary lines with diagonals of light creating dynamic, memorable, razor-sharp patterns.

The whole enterprise is guided by three narrators: a Character in Historical Costume (Kate Strong) frequently bickers with a Character with Megaphone’ – an everyday man whose speech is mechanically altered through a megaphone (played since the very beginning – in 1984 – by *Nicholas Champion). This pair provide the spoken text around which dance is woven and the enigmatic “other person” (Eva Dewaele), a leotard-wearing woman coated from head to toe in grey – as if doused in flour – floats through proceedings like the dust frequently referenced in the spoken text. She appears almost as if a ghostly ballet mistress for this wonderful ensemble. Unfortunately, she could be an unintended metaphor for the departing surrogate creator of this work.

Artifact was the first ballet made by Forsythe as director in Frankfurt and Bennetts waited seven years to be sure that she could replicate it on the Flanders company dancers with success. That she has done so is beyond any question but how sad is the irony of Forsythe’s first ballet in Frankfurt becoming Bennetts’ last in Flanders.

At Sadlers Wells until Sat 21 April:
and at International Dance Festival Birmingham next week, 25 & 26 April:

Review: Graham Watts
Photos: Bettina Strenske

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