In the 20 years that American choreographer William Forsythe has headed Ballett Frankfurt, he has luxuriated in what his colleagues on this side of the Atlantic so desperately lack: reliable, substantial government funding.
The groundbreaking, aggressive and fiendishly punctilious choreography that Forsythe created in that comfortable environment made him one of the dance world's chief celebrities. But in planning the tour that brought his company to the Kennedy Center Opera House Thursday night, Forsythe didn't want to flaunt his riches.
"What if I leveled the playing field?" Forsythe asked the audience in a question-and-answer session after an invigorating, richly textured and gorgeously executed opening-night performance. "What if we just danced?" Utter simplicity was the central notion behind this program. No lavish costumes, scenery or lighting. Dancers in T-shirts, empty stage, simple illumination. And simply fabulous, intricate, exacting dancing.
The stripped-down program is also, I suspect, a bit of a nose-thumbing to the German city that has so long been Forsythe's home. Two years ago the local government decided that his troupe was too expensive, and that audiences would be better off with more traditional ballet fare instead of Forsythe's abstract, off-axis innovations. After a storm of worldwide e-mails in support of the choreographer and his dancers, and months of back-and-forth negotiations, Forsythe is indeed dissolving his 32-member troupe this summer. His future is unclear, but he says he will form a smaller (and cheaper) entity jointly funded by Frankfurt and Dresden.
If the burghers need it, the Kennedy Center program offers stunning proof of what this man can do on a budget.
"The Room as It Was" starts off like an exaggerated pre-show warmup. There is a familiarity in the eight dancers' interactions; as they're stretching out on the floor or pacing the stage, they're also sizing one another up. Exhalations, too, are exaggerated, almost to the level of shouts. Forsythe choreographs breaths as well as steps.
The movement is not classical ballet, though the women are wearing pointe shoes and the dancers all exhibit the pulled-up lightness that ballet training instills. Lines are sharpened and abruptly melted. A ballet step is dropped in occasionally and sparingly, like a pebble plunking into a pool, and the pool is a bitten-off, reorganized movement vocabulary of Forsythe's own. A dancer's solo becomes a soliloquy on organic energy, its thrust and force, how it travels through the body, sending a limb or joint snapping into place and then crumpling as other muscles, in turn, are charged.
When dancers come into close range of one another, seeing them wind and spin and just miss one another at considerable speed is like observing the innards of a watch. At one moment, two men dance close together; a woman walks by and one of the men does a full-body double-take, sending the jolt of recognition/surprise/animal attraction through his spine, knees and ankles. At this and other points, the movement reads very much like a conversation, with recognizable rhythms, responses that build on the theme, interruptions by other dancers that rupture the flow and set it in a new direction.
"Duo" and "(N.N.N.N.)" are smaller works that focus the eye on smaller movements. In "Duo," the two female dancers end up poised in a perfect classical-ballet fifth position. They arrive there through an intensely focused and bracingly clean process -- legs, feet and arms slicing, unfolding and etching a physical calligraphy with stark elegance, relying on just a whisper of music (by favored composer Thom Willems, who wrote the minimalist scores for the entire evening) and synchronized breathing to guide them.
"(N.N.N.N.)" traveled some of the same ground, with four men in a slim stretch of stage between the curtain and orchestra pit. Verticality was juxtaposed with collapse, and the release and gathering of weight. But this work was all of a flavor, and the discovery was not of endlessly unfolding delights but of this: There is a limit to how interesting four guys in T-shirts and sweatpants can be.
After the near-silence of the previous two pieces, "One Flat Thing, Reproduced," starts with a roar, the sound of 20 metal tables being dragged forward by 14 dancers with such horsepower that one table ended up toppling over. Once the tables are all neatly arrayed in rows, they become separate stages for the dancers, who slither over and under them with disarming ease. As Willems's harsh electronic score builds to a screech like amplified feedback, you can't help but notice the danger in combining wildly charging bodies and sharp metal edges. You ponder bones and bruises, and also beauty: The severely simple tables, with their dull silver finish, almost disappear in the field of vision as you watch the furious movement, so the dancers seem to scramble in midair.
Forsythe has said he was influenced by Robert Scott's doomed 1912 race to the South Pole, in which the ill-prepared English explorer and his team perished after their horses died and the men were forced to haul their own sleds across the Antarctic. You don't necessarily need to know this to appreciate the slipperiness of the movement, the underscoring of brute muscle power, the thematic layering of heaviness and lightness, the inanimate and the highly animated. But the inspiration for "One Flat Thing, Reproduced" points out Forsythe's deep well of creativity, his ability to present aspects of the human experience in startling, dramatic and memorably dynamic ways.
Frankfurt was internationally famed for Forsythe's company. Now the city fathers are internationally blamed for losing it. They had one unique thing that can't be reproduced. As demonstrated by this international farewell -- winding up in Paris after the engagement closes here tonight -- the loss will reverberate far beyond the Frankfurt limits.