Pennsylvania Ballet performing William Forsythe's Artifact Suite. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.
"[William] Forsythe sees ballet as a language (his 'mother tongue') that can be studied and transformed," writes Ben Lalague for The Ballet Bag. "Its vocabulary can be manipulated; its grammar can be extended." The award-winning choreographer's striking approach is exemplified in Artifact Suite, which received its Philadelphia premiere with Pennsylvania Ballet in performances from June 13–16, 2013. Forsythe, the artistic director of Ballet Frankfurt for 20 years and now the head of his own company, considers choreography to be an evolutionary process. He worked with Pennsylvania Ballet—as he does with every iteration of his work—to make revisions that suited the dancers and their strengths. "It's about whoever is in the room," says Jodie Gates, one of two former Forsythe dancers staging this production. "He responds immediately to the creativity of the people in front of him."
Artifact Suite is a shortened version of Forsythe's evening-length work Artifact (1984), his first ballet choreographed for Ballett Frankfurt, which he directed for 20 years. He made the entire piece in three weeks, for a company of more than 30 dancers. It was during this time that Forsythe began to extend the language of ballet into something new, deconstructing and abstracting the form through a heightened sense of athleticism, hyper-extended movement, and what dance critic Roslyn Sulcas describes as "a dizzying variety of combinations, rhythms, and patterns." Former Forsythe dancer Amy Raymond characterizes Forsythe's choreography as "a more contemporary view toward classical pointe work [...] but taken much further. What [Forsythe] does so beautifully is that overextension of something that comes from the classical tradition." In a 2006 interview published in BOMB, shortly after Artifact Suite's U.S. premiere at the San Francisco Ballet, Forsythe acknowledged these nods to both the past and future of the ballet form: "It references Balanchine, whom I am so indebted to. It's like a thank-you note to him for everything I've learned by watching his work. And it reflects both my love and my doubts: On one hand, it's reverent; on the other hand it acknowledges the epoch he worked in as something bygone."
Excerpts from William Forsythe's Artifact Suite, on Pennsylvania Ballet's Forsythe & Kylian program, June 13–16 at the Academy of Music, featuring principal dancers Julie Diana and Ian Hussey and company member Caralin Curcio. Courtesy of Pennsylvania Ballet.
Despite the fact that the original Artifact is almost 30 years old, Forsythe's contemporary interpretation of the ballet lexicon is still a hot topic of conversation. Audiences at the June performances saw choreography marked by brilliant timing, lightning-quick rhythm, and precise syncopation, evoking a sculptural quality to the movement. Gates describes an "incredible sense of opposition [and] counterbalancing" in Artifact Suite's pas de deux. "You couldn't do these duets without your partner because you would fall down." A May 30 symposium at Philadelphia's Arts Bank, featuring Forsythe, dance scholar Dr. Linda Caruso Haviland, and Freya Vass-Rhee, Forsythe Company dramaturg and production assistant, addressed the core elements of Artifact and Forsythe's other early work and how his innovations continue to reverberate through the ballet and dance realms. "I have always thought it was a masterpiece," said Kathryn Bennetts, former artistic director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders, in a 2012 Telegraph (UK) article. The longtime ballet master of Ballet Frankfurt under Forsythe's direction, Bennetts acknowledged the technical skill the choreography requires. "It pushes [the dancers], makes them improve as artists. It still looks as new as ever."
Performances of Pennsylvania Ballet's Artifact Suite took place at the Academy of Music from June 13–16, 2013. An accompanying symposium, "Fold, Collapse, and Shift: Ballet and Beyond in the Choreography of William Forsythe," took place on Thursday, May 30, 2013 at 6 p.m. at the Arts Bank.