In the late 1990s, William Forsythe made the last (at least so far) of what he once called the “ballet ballets”, pure dance works that explored, with insouciant brilliance, the tensions between academic forms and their limits. One of those pieces was the austerely beautiful 1998 workwithinwork, set to the atonal melodies and spiky asperities of Berio’s Duetti For Two Violins.
No one made much fuss about the ballet then, perhaps because it is neither appealingly theatrical, nor overtly technically sensational. But workwithinwork, which, together with Forsythe’s 1993 Quintett, was presented by the Lyon Opera Ballet at the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris last week, reveals itself now as a masterpiece. As thrilling in its manipulation of classical forms, its endless invention and its revelations about the music, as any of the great modernist Balanchine pieces, workwithinwork keeps showing you new things about the act of dancing.
In the opening section, Forsythe has three dancers, standing in a diagonal line, do one of the simplest of all ballet steps. It’s a tendu: the leg stretched forward along the floor, extending to the arched foot and pointed tip of the toe. At the same time, the dancers’ bodies dip and arch, their hips jut, and their arms curve up and overhead in one fluid, spiralling sweep. It’s gorgeous and entirely counter-intuitive in ballet terms, moving the torso away from the vertical, angling head, shoulders and pelvis in opposition to classical alignments, then satisfyingly reconstructing them with new logic.
Berio’s violin pieces are episodic – now melancholy and melodic, now mosquito-buzz jagged – and the 16 dancers come and go with unpredictable yet satisfying fluency. The counterpointed groupings, the sudden eruption of a pas de deux, the quick solos and canonical formations on the sombrely lit stage; all seem perfectly right, as if we had come upon a fully formed world, going about its business. The Lyon dancers did a fine job, capturing the expansive articulation, the awareness of the way any part of the body can initiate movement, and the innate musical rhythm that the choreography needs.
They did less well in Quintett, set to Gavin Bryars’s haunting, quavering-voiced “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”. It offers five dancers who are less people than King Lear’s “bare, forked” man: defenceless, vulnerable creatures moving dreamlike through dissolving, seamlessly interwoven encounters. Or at least that’s how the work looked when danced by Forsythe’s company.
With some exceptions (notably the marvellous Caelyn Knight and Jean-Claude Nelson), both casts performed as if Quintett was a high-drama piece about fraught relationships. Steps were punched out and accentuated with virtuosic aggression and the spirit of the work was lost. It showed how fragile dance can be, and how hard it is to keep it alive.