Over the decades, William Forsythe’s relationship with ballet has been stretched almost to breaking point – his choreography testing, fragmenting and discombobulating the basic principles of classicism. Now, aged 68, he seems to have fallen back in love with the form. Two of the most purely enjoyable works of 2018 were created by the veteran iconoclast in full-on ballet mode.
Playlist (Track 1, 2), a coup of a commission by English National Ballet, was shameless in celebrating the collective virtuosity of its 12 male dancers. The first half, set to the smooth poppy beat of Peven Everett’s Surely Shorty was all about pattern and speed, needlepoint footwork, feathery beats and delirious spins that were orchestrated into zigzagging counterpoint and configurations. When the music shifted to a Jax Jones remix of Lion Babe’s Impossible the dancers flew into stratospheric jetés and pirouettes, their super-refined athleticism inflected with a rollicking street energy.
A similar vibe was channelled into A Quiet Evening of Dance, an all-Forsythe programme that started out as a witty ABC of classical shape and line, and evolved into a dazzle of loose-limbed postmodernism and balletic exuberance. Performed by some of the choreographer’s most long-standing dancers, with a startling addition of b-boy brilliance from Rauf “RubberLegz” Yasit, this programme was beautiful not only for the breathtaking rigour of its construction but also for how it joyfully illuminated the individual quirks and genius of its seven dancers.
Petipa’s La Bayadère is fraught with problematic silliness, not least the Manichean catfight into which it casts its rival heroines – pure Nikiya and ruthlessly entitled Gamzatti. However the Royal’s decision to alternate Marianela Núñez and Natalia Osipova in the two ballerina roles allowed for interesting, even unexpected nuance. While Núñez’s refined musicality made for a Nikiya of exquisite otherworldliness and added an elegantly patrician gloss to her nemesis, Osipova’s hurtling physicality lent a headstrong sensuality to Nikiya’s character, just as it gave her Gamzatti a blatant and chilling edge of menace. The dancers inspired each other to dancing and acting of the highest level, raising this hokiest of 19th-century ballets to moments of piercing artistry.
3. Ben Duke and Lost Dog: Juliet and Romeo (Battersea Arts Centre, London, and UK tour)
In this funny but achingly sad rewrite of Shakespeare, Ben Duke allowed the world’s most famously tragic lovers to survive into middle age, and in doing so turned their story into a meditation on the muddle, disappointment and compromise of marriage. There was brilliant chemistry between Duke’s rumpled, ironic Romeo and Solène Weinachter’s Juliet, angrily exhausted by the juggling of work and motherhood. In every vocal and physical inflection we saw layers of the couple’s emotional history: haunted by the glamour and intoxication of first love, ravaged by the knowledge that the reality of their relationship has fallen so far short of the illusory perfection of art.
4. Shobana Jeyasingh Dance: Contagion (Gymnasium Gallery, Berwick, and UK tour)
Commissioned for the 14-18 NOW programme, Shobana Jeyasingh’s superbly concentrated work took an oblique route into the subject of the first world war, evoking the carnage of that period through the Spanish flu pandemic. Sections of fiercely poetic dance evoked the migration of the virus itself – an alien life force that deformed and distorted the bodies of its eight female dancers. The abstract became the human during the work’s second half, as the choreography portrayed the anguish not only of the victims themselves but also those who kept vigil by their bedsides. It showed Jeyasingh at her most humane but also at her most uncompromisingly original and intelligent.
5. Akram Khan: Xenos (Sadler’s Wells, London)
Khan’s magisterial achievement in this, the last solo creation of his career, was to evoke the terror and the pity of the first world war without deploying a single familiar image or cliche. Commemorating the Indian soldiers who served in the trenches, Khan conjured the special hell these men endured, profoundly dislocated as they were from everything they knew. Objectively, the solo may have suffered from structural problems, but Khan’s performance as a shell-shocked soldier was riveting; his body a reeling, ricocheting portrait of trauma and damage.
6. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: Icon (Sadler’s Wells, London)
Cherkaoui’s meditation on our twin impulses to create and destroy was embodied in a joyously ambitious mix of movement, philosophy and sculpture, a collaboration with Antony Gormley and performed by GöteborgsOperans Danskompani. While the choreography treated the dancers as human clay, moulding, massing and pulling them apart, there was physical clay on stage, too – three-and-half tonnes of it, which the dancers sculpted into the objects and ornaments of their everyday lives. Fragments of text, achingly beautiful music and larky jokes combined with potently inventive movement to conjure moments of dizzying metaphysical illumination.
7. Cloud Gate Dance Theatre: Formosa (Sadler’s Wells, London)
Formosa was Lin Hwai-min’s farewell production for Cloud Gate, the company he founded back in 1973, and it was also one of the most magical creations of his career. Typically exquisite and distilled, it mapped the history of Lin’s native Taiwan, evoking its ancestral communities, its wildlife and landscape. No less remarkable were the sections that dealt with darkness and conflict, the stage almost buckling under the violence of war and natural disaster. The greatness of the work, however, lay in its finale, where the choreography moved into clear, blue sky, and Lin reached for a world beyond struggle and human history.
8. Royal Ballet: Bernstein Centenary (Royal Opera House, London)
The Royal’s centenary tribute to Leonard Bernstein generated two very fine commissions: Christopher Wheeldon’s elegantly Dionysiac work Corybantic Games and Wayne McGregor’s Yugen. The latter, a setting of the Chichester Psalms, proved to be one of the most rich and accomplished classical works of McGregor’s career. Moving within the luminous spaces of Edmund de Waal’s set, the choreography sought out the lyricism of Bernstein’s score in long, floating lines and, to a degree entirely unexpected for this most secular of choreographers, brought a mystic tenderness to its narrative of religious quest and transcendence.
9. Dimitris Papaioannou: The Great Tamer (Sadler’s Wells, London)
Papaioannou has the skills of an illusionist. Not only the trompe l’oeil of limbs that look as if they’ve switched bodies, but the way his distinctive brand of beautifully crafted dance theatre unfolds like a slo-mo film of a flower opening. You barely see anything happening and then suddenly: full bloom. The Great Tamer was full of small revelations and epiphanies, drawing on big themes of Papaioannou’s Greek heritage, classical iconography and art.
Thirteen hungry, just-graduated dancers threw themselves into the debut of Rambert2, Rambert’s new sister company. The standout work was Sharon Eyal’s in-your-face Killer Pig, full of catwalk swagger, fierce attack and impressive precision, whether slow-convulsing body rolls or full-throttle grand jetés blasting round the stage. This was exciting, unnerving, bristling with youth and volume. It felt like coming home early and finding your teenagers throwing a party that got out of control.