“Artifact” is 32 years old, but at times it seems more like an artifact from the future than the past. It was the first full-length work William Forsythe made for the Frankfurt Ballet after becoming that company’s director, in 1984, and he’s described it as “a story ballet without a story” and a “thank you note” to George Balanchine, who had died the year before. Elaborating on both Bach and Balanchine, it’s the most ambitious ballet you’re likely to see. The current production by Boston Ballet, the first North American company to perform the complete work, makes a strong case for it.
Like a symphony, or a classical story ballet, “Artifact” has four parts, with a score that’s built around the Chaconne from Bach’s Second Partita for Solo Violin. Part II is set to a recording of the Chaconne by Nathan Milstein, Part III to a sound collage by Forsythe himself. Until her death in 1989, Juilliard-trained classical pianist Eva Crossman-Hecht improvised minimal variations on the Chaconne for Parts I and IV; her work has since been transcribed. Margot Kazimirska, the regular pianist for this piece, was unable to play Thursday; senior principal company pianist Freda Locker filled in handsomely.
What’s onstage also looks back, past Balanchine, past Petipa, to a time when ballet had to free itself from the role of opera divertissement. Two speaking performers, a Woman in Historical Costume (Dana Caspersen, Forsythe’s wife) and a Man with Megaphone (Nicholas Champion, who originated the role), joust throughout. “Step inside” are her first words; “Step outside” are his last. In between, there’s much talk of remembering and forgetting; she speaks of remembering what she never saw and forgetting what she never thought. Thursday, much of what he said, through his megaphone, was muffled and unintelligible. These two do, however, convey a sense of lost dance history. A third character, a Woman in Gray (Caralin Curcio), acts as a spectral balletmistress, perhaps the Spirit of Dance; she improvises, mostly with semaphore-like arm movements, and the dancers follow her.
The two inner sections are the most focused. Part II, the adagio or “white act” of “Artifact,” offers two couples — Thursday it was Kathleen Breen Combes with Eris Nezha and Misa Kuranaga with Patrick Yocum — in duets that, like the rest of Forsythe’s choreography, are extreme in speed and extension and intensely physical, the couples counterpointing and illuminating the music as well as each other. Every few minutes, the curtain drops with a thud and stays there for a few seconds while the Chaconne continues. Perhaps Forsythe is trying to define the music’s structure, but he doesn’t frame its D-major middle section, and in any case the effect is more disconcerting than enlightening.
In Part III, the scherzo of “Artifact,” the Woman in Historical Costume and the Man with Megaphone sit in chairs opposite each other and debate; mostly she talks and he grunts in reply. The dancers — men on one side, women on the other — crowd around as if they were staging an intervention, and periodically they create their own counterpoint by clapping, counting, foot tapping, and tossing expressions back and forth like “Yep/Uh-huh” and “I know I know/I know you know.” Eventually the characters leave, and the dancers go back to practicing their tendus. This part is catchy and doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Parts I and IV, on the other hand, can seem to ramble. The company looks sharp in Forsythe’s spiky, furious, off-center movement, which mostly takes off from the kind of choreography Balanchine did to Stravinsky and Hindemith. Even the Chaconne variations start to sound like Hindemith. But the dancing itself doesn’t come to any apparent point, and neither does the spoken debate. It’s hard to grasp why only one couple from Part II — Breen Combes and Nezha — reappears in Part IV, or why, in Part I, “The Way You Look Tonight” pops up in the score, unless that’s meant as a joke. The challenge here is to see what Forsythe thought. It might take more than one viewing.
Presented by Boston Ballet. At Boston Opera House, through March 5. Tickets: $45-$159. 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.org