WILLIAM FORSYTHE’S PAS/PARTS 2016 begins like an about-to-happen assignation at the bottom of an abandoned swimming pool. The air is dusky blue; the mood is at once alienated and electric. A lone woman is still, and then gloriously in motion, kinetic impulses flickering and undulating through her body with crystalline propulsion.
The woman is Sofiane Sylve, the imperiously grand San Francisco Ballet principal. She is the cold-hot center of this episodic ensemble ballet and, like Thom Willems sinuous, spectacle-courting score, she is only warming up.
Forsythe made Pas/Parts for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1999 and last year reimagined it as Pas/Parts 2016 for the San Francisco Ballet. To see it the weekend before last, on a bill with Alexei Ratmansky’s smolderingly restrained Seven Sonatas, 2009, was to be reminded that ballet can in fact be a serious art form. Never mind that the program is called “Modern Masters” and includes a premiere by Yuri Possokhov titled Optimistic Tragedy, which I sat out in favor of a glass of champagne at the bar, accompanied by the memory of Bill Berkson declaring, with an air of obviousness, that he made it his business to skip everything but the Balanchine works.
It can be stupidly difficult to remember this about ballet, that it’s made for adults, by adults. I don’t mean all the fabulously strange oldies but goodies. I mean ostensibly contemporary work. The tiaras that refuse to die, perched atop tightly smiling faces. The swanning about in lieu of actual movement sequences. The veneer of emotionalism slathered over an absence of ideas: The emptiness can seem inevitable.
What a shame, given the authority-drunk, overexposed, nationalistic ways of this present moment, and ballet’s historical ability to address these very things. Pas/Parts 2016 seethes with power grabs, and sex, and sex as a very particular power grab. Bodies wield the spotlight with cool aggression, and then casually walk away from our gaze: the ultimate power play. As the great Forsythe interpreter Rosyln Sulcas has written, the ballet is steeped in “Forsythe’s canny understanding of the culture of the Paris Opera Ballet, with its formal hierarchies of grades and its deeply rooted competitiveness.”
So too is Forsythe extending the thorny balancing act between human dependency and isolation that Balanchine brilliantly exploited; Sylve, a French-born star who used to dance with New York City Ballet and has a deep understanding of such Balanchine studies of human nature as The Four Temperaments, 1946, is ideally suited to Forysthe’s choreography, which marries formal invention and good old razzle dazzle.
Seven Sonatas is a quieter but no less forceful machine. The structural sophistication, the decorous white costumes (by Holly Hynes), and the Scarlatti piano works (performed by Mungunchimeg Buriad) conspire to cloak the increasing weirdness at play in Ratmansky’s formations. There are only three couples: Sylve again, with Carlo Di Lanno; Frances Chung and Angelo Greco; Lauren Strongin and Joseph Walsh—all superb. Here is virtuosity that never fully announces itself, and a continually shifting view of human relations. It’s the sort of stunner that yields its secrets slowly. (I saw it years ago at American Ballet Theatre and wasn’t so taken with it; who knows what was wrong with me.)
The ballet tips occasionally into a self-conscious cuteness that is the Ratmansky go-to I like least. But mostly he and the dancers are mining (through rhythm hiccups, through syncopation and interruption, through torsos that pull one way while legs cut the other) competing desires that will not be reconciled. The deep longing here is not of the romantic love kind, and while watching it performed by this company in the gilded War Memorial Opera House—in a neighborhood teeming with the homeless and, of late, protests—my mind kept returning to the phrase “dancing on the deck of the Titanic.” The time is borrowed; the hour grows late.