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Boston Ballet rises to the challenge of Forsythe

Tyson Ali Clark in William Forsythe's "Approximate Sonata," as part of the Boston Ballet's "As Anticipated."Rosalie O'Connor

The title of Boston Ballet’s second program this season, “As Anticipated,” reminds us that the company had anticipated staging William Forsythe’s “Artifact Suite” as part of its May 2020 “Off the Charts” program, as well as presenting a Forsythe “Triple Bill” in November 2020. Both events got canceled by the COVID pandemic. Now the Ballet is offering a revised, extended “Artifact Suite” that includes a world-premiere section, on a Forsythe bill that kicks off with his 1996 “Approximate Sonata.” At times the 2½-hour evening is too much of a good thing, but it’s a challenge for both the dancers and the audience.


Forsythe created “Approximate Sonata” for Ballett Frankfurt, the company he helmed from 1984 to 2004, reworking the piece for the Paris Opera Ballet in 2016. To an industrial score of mumbles and mutterings and firecrackers by his longtime collaborator Thom Willems, and against a stark backdrop with the German word “Ja” (“Yes”) flickering in and out, four couples duet, one after another. The music punctuates the movement, or vice versa; the dancers — Haley Schwan and Jeffrey Cirio, Abigail Merlis and Lawrence Rines Munro, Viktorina Kapitonova and Alec Roberts, Addie Tapp and Tyson Ali Clark — explore their personal space, explore their partner’s personal space, experiment with weight and balance, what you can do on your own and when you need someone else. It’s a bit analytical; only Kapitonova, softening against the grain of the music and bonding with Roberts, hints at more. Then again, when Schwan and Cirio return to round out the 20-minute piece, they seem happy to go their separate ways. Perhaps Forsythe’s point is that there is no more.

In 2017, Boston Ballet became the first North American company to perform “Artifact,” which was the first full-length work Forsythe made for Ballett Frankfurt after becoming its director. In 2004, he created “Artifact Suite” for Scottish Ballet, distilling the original rather than just extracting from it. The hourlong 2022 version has become a three-part work: I (“Défilé”), II (“Chaconne”), and III (no title as yet). “Défilé,” originally conceived as a prequel to “Artifact Suite” but now incorporated into it, is the brand-new section. “Chaconne” takes its name from the music, the Ciaccona from Bach’s Second Partita for Solo Violin as recorded by Nathan Milstein. It’s in essence the second section of “Artifact.” Part III looks to be loosely based on the rest of “Artifact,” particularly the first and fourth sections.


The Man with Megaphone and the Woman in Historical Costume have been excluded from “Artifact Suite,” but the Woman in Gray (María Álvarez) is back, acting as a spectral ballet mistress, perhaps the Spirit of 21st-Century Dance. To a hypnotic cello-and-trombone score fashioned by Forsythe and Boston Ballet music director Mischa Santora out of motifs from Variation 15 of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” she leads the ensemble in sequences of clapping and semaphore-like arm movements. The fire curtain keeps dropping and then rising to reveal new tableaux, the dancers creating diagonal lines of basic ballet steps, dizzying in canon and counterpoint. At one point some 40 dancers form a huge circle around Lia Cirio, as if she were the Chosen One from Stravinsky’s “Sacre.” It ends with the Woman in Gray downstage, her back to us; part conductor, part cheerleader, she instructs the ensemble in the ballet language of Forsythe.


Following “Défilé” without a break, “Chaconne” showcases two couples — Chyrstyn Fentroy and Lasha Khozashvili, Ji Young Chae and Paul Craig — in duets of extreme speed and extension while at the stage edges the Woman in Gray leads the ensemble in more clapping and semaphore. In this section, too, the fire curtain drops every few minutes, now with a thud, as if asking us to refocus; it’s an idea that eventually goes from thought-provoking to just plain provoking. Fentroy and Khozashvili find some welcome nuance in Bach’s brighter D-major section halfway through, but it’s Chae’s explosive exuberance that does Forsythe full justice.

Boston Ballet in William Forsythe's "Artifact Suite"Rosalie O'Connor

Part III of “Artifact Suite” revisits some of Forsythe’s central concerns — torque, hyperextension, épaulement, port de bras and arm movement in general — without adding much that we haven’t seen already. The recorded score, Eva Crossman-Hecht’s minimal variations on Bach’s Ciaccona, pounds away before hinting at the coda of Hindemith’s “The Four Temperaments,” and the movement follows suit, alluding to Balanchine’s choreography; the final pose even looks like an homage. Throughout the dancers rise to Forsythe’s challenge, embodying his concept of physical thinking. What might be missing is the metaphysical.


“Approximate Sonata” and “Artifact Suite.” Choreography by William Forsythe. Presented by Boston Ballet. At Boston Opera House, through Nov. 13. $39-$164. 617-695-6955,

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at