Even at the ripe old age of 28 Artifact looks as original as ever. William Forsythe’s reverent alteration of the ballet technique shows great understanding of both its history and its potential; whilst his sense for theatre gives the work a poignant and characterful edge beyond mere movement. Artifact has no clearly defined plot but instead winds its way through a vague, ambiguous structure which always hints at some profound truth that is just beyond reach. In reality such a meaning is left up to the viewer.
Despite all its importance and intellectualism Artifact is made of the same stuff as all great ballets: good dancing. The subject matter is ballet itself, as are the conventions and vocabulary it uses. Forsythe takes traditional principles and steps and tests them to breaking point, a nod to his neo-classical influences. In fact the whole piece is based around the most fundamental elements of the ballet vocabulary: a simple tendu sequence.
At times Forsythe strays further from the tried traditional steps and shows his real creative flair; in this instance resulting in two exhilarating pas-de-deux that form the heart and highlight of piece. The usual stability of classical partnerwork is shunned in favour of daring new choreography. The female dancers drop off-balance as they swing, loll, and dive recklessly into space. Their male counterparts charge after them and secure them safely, tenderly returning them to the ground.
Dance is not the only tool at Forsythe’s disposal and the piece owes a lot of its personality to the drama that pervades it. The theatrical element is manifested through three character roles. The ‘Character in Historical Costume’ is Havisham-esque in her attachment to the past, her period costume and the eccentric otherworldliness with which Kate Strong performs the role. She seems lost and forgetful and constantly winds up in confusing, intellectual tongue-twisters. Then there’s the ‘Character with a megaphone’ played now and in almost every other performance since its creation by Nick Champions. He argues with and prompts the ‘Character in Historical Costume’ in a timid, spectral voice despite the loudhailer. ‘The Other Person’ is more mysterious and slinks quietly about the stage as the audience arrives. She conducts the dancers like an orchestra as they copy her altered port-de-bras.
The vague and abstract plot spans four acts. In Act I we are invited to ‘step inside’ by the ‘Character in Historical Costume’ and with a clap of her hands the music begins. She starts her meaningless argument with the ‘character with a megaphone’ as the dancers perform complex yet clearly structured and composed counterpoints. In Act II the characters are gone and we watch the principals dance their carefree duets, interrupted occasionally as the curtain comes crashing down, whilst the corps de ballet provide a backdrop of simple arm movements. Act III looks like a breakdown. The argument becomes more heated and the characters more exposed. The dance too is radically different with elements of improvisation and floorwork. In past performances Forsythe would have stood offstage giving new instructions to the dancers. In Act IV the argument abates and the finale is reached.
Artifact is a piece of history, linking Forsythe’s current contemporary work to its balletic roots. In it one can find many of the ideas that he would later develop alongside many of those that he inherited from the classical and neoclassical traditions. It is either a sad reflection on the pace of change in dance or a testament to Forsythe’s vision that this piece of history is still as exciting and as alive as it once was.
A ballet in four parts, Artifact features music by J.S. Bach and scenography, lighting, costumes and choreography all by William Forsythe. It is famous for the way it subverts the traditional physical principles of ballet and plays with audiences ideas about what ballet can be.
Sadler's WellsRosebery Avenue
London Greater London United Kingdom EC1R 4TN
Thursday to Saturday 7.30pm
Duration: 1 hour 50 minutes
Artifact, by William Forsythe, first soloist Eva Dewaele © Johan Persson
Koninklijk Ballet Vlaanderen (Royal Ballet Flanders) chor. Artifact by William Forsythe © Johan Persson