With no words or obvious narrative to hang it on, dance is an art form often difficult to remember. Yet 21 years on, I still recall at an Adelaide festival the thrilling, relentless, kinetic force and detail of William Forsythe and his Frankfurt Ballet dancers.
He was rightly heralded then as the late 20th century choreographer who, following in the steps of Balanchine’s reinvention, flung classical ballet into “the nerves of our time”
William Forsythe wasn’t at that 1994 Adelaide Festival opening. His wife, the 32-year-old dancer Tracy-Kai Maier, died just a fortnight earlier. He’d been completing a tribute work to her, Quintett, but in the end she was too weak from ovarian cancer to ever see it.
Remarkably, with the permission of Forsythe, now 65, Quintett opened this week in a Sydney Dance Company production which will travel soon to Melbourne and Canberra. Rarely performed, it’s the first production he’s authorised of the half-hour work for anywhere in the southern hemisphere.
Italian choreographer Jacopi Godani, who revived his own exciting, propelling work, Raw Models, with the SDC last year, told Forsythe its dancers were ready to do Quintett justice. It was a well-placed reference – Godani now runs the Forsythe Company in Dresden, which Forsythe founded when he stormed out of the Frankfurt Ballet in 2004.
And Godani was right.
SDC artistic director Rafael Bonachela presents Quintett in a double bill, Frame of Mind, with a new work of his own which is one of his best.
Quintett is staged on an empty stage, with just a central, old-fashioned lightbox and a large reflector in the corner, with five dancers rushing to inhabit every inch of the space. They capture perfectly the subtle musical shifts in the haunting score from Britain’s famed post-minimalist composer Gavin Bryars.
He uses, in a loop of slightly unpredictable repetitions, the 1971 recording of a homeless man in London singing Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. With Bryar’s simple, gradually evolving orchestration, this hypnotic music drives the dancers just as it, almost inexplicably, nearly drives us to tears.
The quintet never stops running as Forsythe tears our focus from one angle to the next. Either beautifully en pointe or flat landed on the floor, they inhabit both air and ground, collapsing ballet arcs into contemporary contortion and quizzical detail, mixing lyrical with the jagged.
The shifting duets are essentially tender and celebratory of life but, touched by death, these are complex couples. Their moods and often surprise moves are playful, confused, pushing, yearning and, above all, equal in comradeship.
The pace never ceases, the dancers punctuating their propulsion with slaps to the floor and each other.
With this snappy pace and frequent double takes of human reaction, the Quintett dancers occasionally conjure the briskness of cartoon character but never a false one. At one moment a dancer bangs another with his bum cheeks, gently jolting her across the stage. Full frenzy is never far but Quintet is always controlled, held together by threads of a classical tradition which Forsythe has always revered.
Even, apparently, in its archaic Russian form.
A tough act to follow, but perhaps well-influenced, Bonachela’s Frame of Mind delivers an emotionally engaging and overarching choreographic mastery which distinguishes this work from earlier ones.
His starting point, almost always the music, is a moving Yiddish-inspired work by New York composer (of The National fame) Bryce Dessner. It was written as a musical evocation of home and flight and is performed by the Kronos Quartet. As danced, the same urgency and frustrated failures of human communication here enriches the various duets, trios and groups in Frame of Mind as it does in Quintett.
Designer Ralph Myers brings a heightened naturalism, enhancing these choreographic details, with his tall, realistic, blotched warehouse walls and long window. His angled set thrusts the dancers to the fore of the stage and our attention. Lighting designer Benjamin Cisterne, at times beautifully through that window, variously shadows and spotlights further detail.
Within that special restriction and focus, Bonachela’s dancers have a welcome opportunity in pairs and smaller groupings to bring emotional character to their movement. And Bonachela this time melds these ingredients well into a smooth totality.
He’s aided by having dancers, clad simply in almost rehearsal blacks, standing as observers against the walls before leaping to action. These smaller pieces and transitions can drift in impact and inventiveness but, as always with Bonachela, he delivers full ensemble dancing which is electric.
His signature move in Frame of Mind are hands crossing the vision of the face and leading the body off into further articulations. Interestingly, beyond the full ensemble power, the most satisfying choreography is in the solos. Cass Mortimer Eipper powerfully concludes the work, arm across his eyes, collapsed in a defiance of loneliness.
He, the mesmerising Chloe Long with Jesse Scales, David Mack and the long-limbed Sam Young-Wright are also the standout dancers in Quintett.
Images by Peter Greig. Featured image: David Mack and Chloe Leong in Quintett