For its yearly mixed rep program, English National Ballet brought an all-American barnburner of a lineup. William Forsythe, after a 20-year hiatus, returned with two short works, “Approximate Sonata 2016,” and “Playlist (Track 1 and 2),” the latter created on the dancers; Aszure Barton’s work “Fantastic Beings”—is a creature feature; and from the New York City Ballet archive, the company retrieved Jerome Robbins’ 1951 work, “The Cage.”
Barton’s dancers emerge from a random alloy of stardust and a more tractable element, the Mason Bates “Anthology of Fantastic Zoology” score, calling up a site-nonspecific galaxy far, far away. They bring with them a generically engineered space sampling of remotely-sourced gyroscopic movement. Packets of seedling phrases grow into self-contained studies with no pretense of continuity from one to the next. Some are lead-ins to spectacular solos, such as Erina Takahashi’s at the top of the work; others provide a platform to showcase specialties of individual dancers, such as Isaac Hernandez’s placed and plentiful pirouettes, or a mesmerizing T’ai-Chi-like duet by two women. As the piece lengthens, creatures shrouded in shredded black cloth cross the stage on all fours by ones and twos, until a horde of curious beasts supplants the galacticons. Cued by softened lighting (Burke Brown), you’re thinking this is how it ends, but then the galacticons re-take the space with a thundering finale of resolute pyrotechnics, all under the observation of a single screened eye that we stared back at even before the opening curtain. There’s something for every dancer in Barton’s limitless imagination. The challenge is to sort how much of it to reveal in a single evening!
“Approximate Sonata” gives us earthly dancers. They work away at their craft until it crystalizes into art at a temperature registering partners having left their shared mark. Forsythe shows the process without the inevitable truncation that burdens a staged rehearsal.
With their bodies, including eyes and voices, they communicate objective needs of the piece and subjective calls made by years of personal experience and expertise. Men and women may not achieve equivalency onstage so long as one sex wears pointe shoes and the other dances on flat, but in the quest for the artistic mot juste, a justice asserts itself, goes off-balance, and re-emerges in the kneading of the steps until their impact doubles in size. Alina Cojocaru drives, as Isaac Hernandez navigates. He then withdraws, partially in protest, partially to protect his integrity as he absorbs the weight of her conviction. Tiffany Hedman is the showboat to James Streeter’s stylish squiring; Aaron Robison chases Precious Adams, blinded by adoration. Clad in a black cami and chartreuse pants, she recasts herself from siren to needier partner, and leans on his unabashed accessibility.
“The Cage” must have sent out shock waves in its day! More than six decades hence, it reveals more about Jerome Robbins’ attitude toward women than we may want to learn. In the context of an irrepressible effort to win women their rightful place, it reads like the iconic prompt for the disclaimer, “I’m a women’s rights fighter, but I’m no feminist!” Picture Wili spirits abandoning the forest for a Soho exorcism, where revenge sex with man-eating cadres in mysteriously coded beige leotards, is the order of the day. Their Novice priestess is Jurgita Dronina. She wears a black, pixie-styled wig, her face fixed in a deer-in-headlights stare, modified only when her mouth goes agape like the hysteric in the painting, “The Scream.” Matthew Astley and James Streeter, who hope to man-seduce their way out of a predestined demise, are variously stomped on and inveigled by the Novice. She plays the game for a while, but the punishing end is foreordained by the Queen, Begoña Cao. Cao’s take-no-prisoners incendiary extensions and a fatal drumbeat, etch the men’s itinerary in stone.
The casting is according to type. Dronina packs power that is by nature, frontloaded. But Robbins’ argues for the female figure to rise out of the mire and gain heft as the sexual tension builds. What if you cast against type—a waif for example—who wanders into her mania unawares, but ups its quotient as the two men, and the women who surround her, sound contrasting alarms that trip a wired response?
William Forsythe and his works are full of surprises. “Playlist (Track 1 and 2)” is a surprise party. It’s a disco inferno built for an all-male cast, proposing that a hybrid of ballet steps and disco release dancers from lifelong academic nostrums to rock out to the music that really moves them. It seems to say that inside every male ballet dancer, there’s a John Travolta or Patrick Swayze (plus turnout) yearning to go clubbing! To see Aaron Robison stepping up onto a cloud of pure exhilaration beckons our own. No wonder audience members rise to their feet to shout and clap the piece out! Only British propriety could exercise sufficient restraint to keep them from rushing the stage to join in the all-American mirth.