Artifact, Sadler’s Wells, London

Over the years I have been tempted to think of William Forsythe as a choreographer in spite of himself. I have watched his creations from his 1976 beginnings in Stuttgart, and even at what I think his most exasperating, most politically windy, there have been passages of dance so feat, so elegant, that I have felt “all is forgiven”. And when, as in Paris a decade ago, he opts for such wholly choreographic (rather than argumentative) creations as Wound-work and Pas./Parts or, more recently, the duet he made for Sylvie Guillem and Nicolas Le Riche, I see him as a creator whose dances are a vivid development from Balanchine’s advanced manner. Even at his most wilful, his most – for me – hyperactively modish, there are flashes of bright choreographic illumination.

All of which may serve as preface to the Royal Ballet of Flanders’ appearance in London with Forsythe’s Artifact. Made in 1984, it is a questioning of ballet as Forsythe saw it at that time, under the shadow of the old classic dance and of Balanchine’s genius, or in the cracked glass of western dance studios and the rootless aesthetic of a new dance manner.

The piece is in four scenes. It boasts (and here is Problem Number One) two of those flatulent chatterboxes whom Forsythe favours: a tedious and hectoring woman, given to f-words, and an incomprehensible old chap with a megaphone. They gabble, ceaselessly, pointlessly. We realise that the work’s development, played against brutal piano music and an over-loud recording of a Bach Chaconne by Nathan Milstein, may concern the nature of Forsythe’s academic ideals.

The big ensembles, with their drilled corps de ballet as automata, have a vivid assurance in dance-making, fascinating in their logic and their illogicalities – and done alertly by the Flanders troupe. But the luggage, the vehement manner of staging, the aggressions that lie just beneath the surface, and the need for the viewer to catch the frantic allusions on the wing, make the piece twitchy, garrulous, oh-so-damn-clever-and-pleased-with-itself that I long for Forsythe to stand back and allow his fascinating dance to breathe. Nurse! Bring oxygen, the patient needs air!

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