The Lyon Opera Ballet’s triple bill of works by William Forsythe (“Second Detail”), Russell Maliphant (“twelvetwentyone”) and Jiri Kylian (“Symphony of Psalms”) looked intriguing enough to warrant fighting the Saturday traffic leaving town. A last minute program change—apparently due to lost sets—considerably dampened expectations. A very middling Kylian (“Un Ballo”) and Nacho Duato’s best known and often performed “Jardi Tancat” were a poor substitute for one of Mr. Kylian’s major works, inspired by a superb score.
Mr. Forsythe’s “Second Detail,” by far the best choreography of the evening, opened the program with a fourteen-member hyper race through laser-sharp choreography that was witty and playful and also calculated to the nanosecond. The piece hovered on an invisible edge between chaos and control. The permutations of “how many with who and in what directions and when” might have been arrived at by mathematical calculations, but there was always a joker, one dancer who defied the pattern, who threw in the proverbial monkey wrench. Fascinating in the complexity of its superbly designed linear patterns, which suggested predictability, “Detail”, nevertheless, abounded in surprises tumbling over each other. While the work’s thrust was towards symmetry and order, it delighted in never getting there.
Dressed and lit in cool gray, the dancers started with short phrases that froze in their tracks only to be overtaken by new ones. Thom Willems’ ticking clock rhythm, that immediately shattered, set the tone. Often dancers would retreat to chairs lined up against the back wall where arm and legs gestures created lacy patterns against the front stage action. In the second part, the hard edges acquired a loopy slinkiness—amplified by Mr. Willems’ gurgling hiccups—that almost seemed to wink at the audience, saying something like: “We know that this is crazy, but we love it.” At one point one the dancers suggested deflation with knees that turned buttery.
For the most part Mr. Forsythe’s spicy mix of classical and other steps served this heady romp well. With the women on point, except for one late in the piece who seemed to introduce a more sweeping way of dancing, “Detail” was also. Four women soloists, Iratxe Ansa Santesteban and Peggy Grelat among them, followed each other in rapid succession. Ms. Santesteban, a tiny fireball of energy, whirled through spitfire phrases with the delight of kid who has discovered the thrill of speed. Tall and dark-haired POB trained, Ms Grelat managed to infuse Mr. Forsythe’s extensions and skippy loops with almost classical elegance. The ensemble, including a very handsome, long-limbed Antonio Ruz, performed magnificently.
Highly amplified, Mr. Willems’ electronic score managed to assault as well as to envelop. The music seemed more than usually integrated into the choreography. In other of Mr, Forsythe’s works, Mr. Willems’ contribution often seems to work as a kind of soundscape against which the dance devolves almost independently. In this particular case the composer gave the dancers clues and periodically even a beat onto which they leaped with great relish.
If “Detail” was all straight lines, sharp attacks and abrupt shifts of direction, Mr. Maliphant’s US premiere of his recent “twelvetwentyone”—except for its equally harsh electronic score—was all flow, soft focus and continuity. It paired well on this program.
Set on thirteen dancers, the most welcome part of this somewhat unfocused work was how it showed off the Lyon dancers’ versatility. The work itself, by this young British choreographer, however felt fragmented. The piece opened promisingly enough with barely visible dancers rising, falling and rolling as if carried along by waves of energy surging from deep inside their bodies. This first part breathed with a sense of amorphous life
Also included were a series of liquid duets which featured partnering with the women flowing over the men’s crouching backs. They were preceded by solitary martial arts trained dancer (Yang Jiang) yearning for an upstage woman caught in her own circle of self-absorption. Another section consisted of interlocking arm movements, with the rest of the body buried in the dark. Eventually, the whole dancers emerged into the light. Was the point to show that these “abstract” patterns had been made by human beings? What this piece lacked was connective tissue pulling its parts together.
Michael Hull’s dark lighting design obscured at least as much as it showed the dancers. Perhaps “twelvetwentyone’s” major thrust was to create a of mood of chiaro scuro or suggest an sculpture-like interplay between positive—what you see—and negative—what is left out—forces.
Much of the movement language—the curls, the giving and sharing of weight, the elastic phrasing—seemed to be pretty straightforwardly based in release, not to speak of contact improvisation and martial arts influences. But if there was a personal voice in this choreography, it seemed more in Mr. Maliphant’s velvety use of light than in the specificity of his choreography. One couldn’t but wonder whether this work’s choreographic impulse wasn’t essentially a reactionary one with Mr Maliphant, a former member of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, fiercely embracing everything that ballet was not.
Mr. Kylian’s “Un Ballo”, the first piece he choreographed for NDTII, his company of young dancers, uses two Ravel excerpts, Le Tombeau du Couperin and Pavane pour une infante défunte. Using much of his accustomed vocabular—the deep plies, the fluid lines, the side to side weight shifts, the sculpural peekaboo partnerings, and of course, the voluminous skirts for the women—this work seemed almost prototypical Kylian. Though expertly done—the duets to the Tombeau section showcased three nicely differentiated pas de deux—this was not major Kylian, the generous applause which greeted work not withstanding, “Jardi Tancat” means “enclosed garden” in Catalan. To substitute a semi-circle of sticks, maybe meant to suggest tree stumps, for the high wall that keeps this sextet of dancers locked in place, did the piece a great disservice. When the three duets coalesce into a group all facing that wall, the effect can be heart breaking. In this performance, one wondered why they all had their backs to us. This is a case in which the set—where ever it is—was sorely missed.
“Jardi”, his first piece, is still among Mr. Duato’s stronger works. Some people see the influence of José Limón’s choreography in it. Though one might question Mr. Duato’s familiarity with Limón—his choreography, except for “The Moor’s Pavane” not exactly being all that familiar in the Europe of the 80’s--the comparison seems justified in the sense that Duato here also works from a well spring of deeply felt human passion that transcends individual fates. In terms of his vocabulary, however, Duato owes at least as much to Kylian as he does to Limón.
This is a simple piece. It speaks of community and isolation, joyous pairing and resigned endurance. Above all it speaks of the earth as a foe to be conquered and a home to be embraced. The Lyon dancers embraced it with expertise and warmth. But I still don’t know whether singer Maria Del Mar Bonet’s trills sounded more like wails or more like laughter.