The holiday season is a true test for most ballet companies, and the Paris Opera Ballet is no exception. The 154-strong troupe has made a habit of splitting to perform simultaneous programmes in its two opera houses throughout December, and this year its Garnier mixed bill has offered the opportunity to rekindle a long-standing relationship with William Forsythe. With three works the American master created for the company, all boasting scores by his regular collaborator, Thom Willems, the programme is in good hands; as often in recent years, however, a wave of injuries has stretched the troupe thin, and this Forsythe/Brown programme only finds its feet after the interval.
Ballet is no stranger to the concept of survival of the fittest, and Forsythe distils that struggle to daredevil extremes in one of his masterpieces, In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, created in 1987. Sizing each other up, his creatures hurl themselves in overstretched balances and turns as Willems’ implacable electronic score comes crashing down around them with increasing violence.
Sadly, however, no étoile or senior soloist has been cast for this revival, and the performance suffered on opening night, with more than a few fumbled turns and landings. In the Middle requires full command of the stage and monstrous resistance through the body to project the fearless detachment needed, and there is nowhere to hide; Aurélie Bellet almost got there with diamond-cut precision in the final pas de deux, and both Vincent Chaillet and Marc Moreau took excellent turns, but international performances have set higher standards.
After the uninhibited In the Middle, Trisha Brown’s O zlozony/O composite, the only non-Forsythe work on the programme, is like a tall glass of milk: presumably better for the dancers’ health with its low-impact movement, but soberingly neutral in taste. Created eight years ago for three company étoiles, it is somehow enjoying its third revival, and still suffering from an acute case of esoteric blandness, despite Aurélie Dupont and Nicolas Le Riche’s impressive fluidity.
The second half of the program is immeasurably stronger. Woundwork 1 and Pas./Parts were created for the company in 1999, and both are shining examples of Forsythe’s deconstruction of classical movement. In Woundwork, two couples dance within a light-infused white box, progressively spinning extensions and spiralling distortions out of that simplest of classical steps, the tendu. The mood is pensive, and the work ends on a port de bras closed in the dancers’ back, an ultimate twist to Forsythe’s quasi-classical yet postmodern story.
If Woundwork is a distillation, Pas./Parts is a fascinating sum. With its large cast and a score always on the verge of playful derailment, this series of theme and variations unfolds with a clock-like precision that suits the Paris Opera Ballet. Sabrina Mallem sets the tone with an impressively exact first variation, and subtle changes of mood sustain the impact of the piece throughout: a quatuor turns manic in a section to the tune of what sounds like a wacky video-game score, while elsewhere dancers fill the stage in complex, fast-changing patterns. The choreography progresses in fascinatingly precarious loops, and the quintessential Forsythe attitude, with its straighter ports de bras and alert, electric energy, gives the stage the allure of a ballet hyperreality. Forsythe at his prolific best.