For its first offering of 2019, “Full on Forsythe,” Boston Ballet has gone all out. In 2016, the company entered into a five-year partnership with the distinguished American choreographer William Forsythe, and now it’s devoting an entire evening to him: “Pas/Parts 2018” (which Boston Ballet first presented last year), the company premiere of “Blake Works I,” and finally the world premiere of “Playlist (EP).” This makes for a challenging 2½ hours, but the company’s mostly fabulous performance at the Opera House Thursday confirmed Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen’s belief that Forsythe “is the person who has moved the art form forward after [George] Balanchine.”
The paradox is that Forsythe has moved the art form forward in part by moving it back. “Full on Forsythe” is full of basic ballet vocabulary, with special attention to port de bras and épaulement. But the steps are done often at high speed, and in sequences and patterns of dizzying invention and complexity that you might think should accompany Bach. Instead, “Pas/Parts 2018” boasts an industrial-strength electronic score by frequent Forsythe collaborator Thom Willems, “Blake Works I” is set to seven songs from British singer-songwriter James Blake’s 2016 album “The Colour in Anything,” and the playlist of “Playlist (EP)” ranges from Peven Everett to Natalie Cole. The contemporary music makes the movement seem more contemporary.
What makes ballet timeless, however, is the personal element, and this was at times absent in “Pas/Parts 2018” — hardly surprising given the work’s extreme technical demands. Created for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1999 and then revised for Boston Ballet last year, “Pas/Parts” comprises 20 divertissements — mostly solos, duets, and trios — that flash by in 36 minutes. Jessica Burrows was slinky in an early trio with Patrick Yocum and Lasha Khozashvili, but the piece didn’t pop till Seo Hye Han’s cubist deconstruction of a solo, in which she seemed to be moving 15 different ways at once. In the same duet they did last year, Han and Ji Young Chae cavorted and high-fived; when John Lam joined in, they became a mischievous trio. Chae was just as mischievous in her own solo, and we got characterful duets from Misa Kuranaga with Patric Palkens and Burrows with Yocum. But the company hasn’t quite made “Pas/Parts” its own.
The rest of the evening was superb. “Blake Works I,” which Forsythe created for the Paris Opera Ballet in 2016, gave the dancers more room to be themselves, and they took full advantage. Blake’s tempos on “The Colour in Anything” are moderate; his mood is wistful, his lyrics enigmatic. You couldn’t make them out, for the most part, but you didn’t need to. The highlight of this 30-minute piece was the duet, to the album’s title track, for Chyrstyn Fentroy and Roddy Doble, her playful spontaneity setting off his spacious elegance. Balanchine was invoked throughout, from his “Serenade” in the opening “I Need a Forest Fire” to his “Rubies” in “I Hope My Life” and “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2” in “Waves Know Shores.” The finale, a melting duet for Lia Cirio and Palkens to “F.O.R.E.V.E.R,” ended on the words “How wonderful you are,” as if Forsythe were thanking both the art form and his performers.
“Playlist (EP)” was more upbeat and every bit as rewarding. The piece started out life last April as “Playlist (Track 1, 2),” a work for 12 men that Forsythe created for English National Ballet. He added four tracks to create this new 30-minute “(EP)” version. The men strutted their stuff to Everett’s “Surely Shorty” and Lion Babe/Jax Jones’s “Impossible,” their surnames stenciled in silver on the back of their short-sleeved red shirts. Viktorina Kapitonova, all torque and long, free limbs, embodied the temptations of Lady Luck in Abra’s “Vegas”; Fentroy and Doble were back, as affecting as before, in Khalid’s “Location.” Barry’s White’s “Sha La La Means I Love You” found the ensemble — now some 30 strong — filling the stage with high-kicking exuberance, Forsythe channeling Busby Berkeley as well as Balanchine. The curtain dropped, inviting applause, then rose again for Kathleen Breen Combes and Lam to duet to Cole’s “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)” and the company to party one more time. Boston Ballet has seldom looked better. Ballet itself has seldom looked better.
“Full on Forsythe”
At Boston Opera House, through March 17. Tickets $37-$159. 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.org
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.