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DANCE REVIEW

Boston Ballet kicks off its streaming season with a taste of Forsythe

Tigran Mkrtchyan and Ji Young Chae in William Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated."
Tigran Mkrtchyan and Ji Young Chae in William Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated."Liza Voll/Boston Ballet


Boston Ballet is back — if only on your computer screen. The company hasn’t been able to perform at the Citizens Bank Opera House since COVID-19 shut theaters in March, but it’s hoping to retake the stage in May 2021. Meanwhile, Boston Ballet is offering a BB@yourhome series of six programs, November through April, that you can subscribe to for $180. The programs will feature the company’s current roster in new works captured live in studio, as well as offering excerpts from past staged performances and conversations with choreographers. Each program will be viewable online for 10 days after the premiere date, during which time you can watch it as often as you like.

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This virtual season debuted this past Thursday with “Forsythe Elements,” a reflection on the work of William Forsythe, the American choreographer who in 2016 entered into a five-year partnership with Boston Ballet. The program opens with studio performances — filmed this month — of excerpts from “Playlist (EP)” and “Pas/Parts 2018,” then continues with excerpts from past Opera House stagings of “The Second Detail,” “Artifact 2017,” and “Pas/Parts 2018.” Forsythe converses with six company members in a kind of intermission; then the dancing concludes with Opera House excerpts from “Blake Works I,” “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” and “Playlist (EP).”

It’s a fast-paced retrospective look at six works that Boston Ballet has presented over the past 10 seasons — a bit too fast-paced. The program runs 50 minutes (including introduction and credits), with 28 minutes of dancing. The best part is actually the 17-minute conversation, where Forsythe quotes Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul Verlaine, and Alonzo King, talks about accommodating a dancer who’s more comfortable turning left than right, and displays a sense of humor to match his palpable intelligence. It’s obvious that the dancers love working with him; soloist Chyrstyn Fentroy sums it up when she says he “gives you the space to truly be you.”

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Still, 28 minutes is short measure for the choreographer whom Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen astutely called “the person who has moved the art form forward after [George] Balanchine.” Forsythe, who directed Ballett Frankfurt for 20 years before forming his own company, has redefined the classical vocabulary, moving the art form forward by looking back to its fundamentals, paying special attention to the upper-body basics of port de bras and épaulement while often requiring steps to be done at high speed, and in sequences and patterns of dizzying invention and complexity.

Like Balanchine, he hints at stories. “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” takes place on what could be an asphalt playground at night, with two women vying for the same guy while the other six dancers preen and strut their stuff and occasionally hook up. “The Second Detail” conjures a high-school dance, with a vocabulary that’s all over the lot — shimmy one second, tendu the next — and everybody going in two directions at once, reveling in the physical while trying to escape it. The industrial-strength Thom Willems scores that accompany these two pieces pound at your eardrums; yet the choreography makes it clear that this is modern ballet and not just modern dance. These are major Forsythe works; they warrant more than a minute each of “Forsythe Elements.”

The ambitious, evening-length “Artifact 2017” — made up of four movements, including a fair bit of spoken word — gets compressed into three minutes. In general, the Opera House snippets are underlit and shot from too far away. Two recent Forsythe works set to pop music come off the best. In “Blake Works I” and “Playlist (EP),” you get an inkling of how Forsythe plays pop freedom off against classical discipline, and how the dancers really are given the space to be themselves.

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These are difficult times, and it’s to Boston Ballet’s credit that it has put together a virtual season for dance-hungry subscribers and is also offering itself to a new audience. But if I go back to watch “Forsythe Elements” again, it’ll be for the conversation.

FORSYTHE ELEMENTS

Presented by Boston Ballet at bostonballet.org through Nov. 29. Season subscription: $180. 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.org

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.


Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.