The National Ballet of Canada presented an exotic bouquet of contemporary choreography Tuesday by William Forsythe, Jiri Kylian, and Alexei Ratmansky. The works, all but one performed to music from a live orchestra conducted by music director David Briskin, displayed a superbly prepared company brimming with energy and artistic ambition.
The opener, Forsythe’s “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude,” is neoclassicism on speed. It accelerates Balanchine-like grace, with occasional tilts and quick rollups of pelvis and spine, into a Cunningham-paced frenzy. Poured into the final movement of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, it is as though Forsythe, unable to decide which of three sequences to include in a phrase, shrugs and says, “What the hell, I’ll include all of them at triple the speed.” Costumes by Stephen Galloway – the men in open-backed purple singlets, the women in moss-green with horizontal tutus like paper cutouts – enhances the sensation of virtuosic playfulness.
Following that, from the same mid-1990s Ballet Frankfurt era, was Forsythe’s “Approximate Sonata 2016.” Each of its four sections features a different couple torn between dalliance and self-involvement, pedestrian strolling and casual arm touches during transitions. The impression is of a vague, pervasive loneliness hovering over constant carnal commotion, flirtation, seduction, inspiration, exploitation. That sense of melancholy amid the social tumult is reinforced by a minimalist electronic score by Thom Willems, with repetitive low throbs and percussive crackles and scratches. The totality is raw and alluring, sensual and sad.
“Petite Mort,” choreographed by Kylian in 1991 for Nederlands Dans Theater, is, per its title, a witty meditation on human eros, in all its splendor and silliness. The music is from two Mozart piano concertos, with Andrei Streliaev as soloist. Six men are costumed by Joke Visser in revealing, silky, flesh-colored girdle-like briefs, and six women play hide and seek behind rolling 18th-century dresses as imposing as fortresses. The men engage in phallic sword play with fencing foils. They sweep a stage-sized parachute-like sheet over the women, who merge with them in spread-legged lifts and insectoid couplings followed by exhausted sideways floor rolls. Perhaps Kylian saw the play Amadeus and was spurred to bring Mozart’s libidinous delight to quasi-explicit light, the result funny and tantalizing, a mirror held up to our romantic pretenses and ecstasies.
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Leos Janacek’s Idyll for String Orchestra-Adagio served as a musical interlude (an uncharacteristically anemic and ragged performance in an evening otherwise musically quite satisfying).
Then, as a robust finale, came Alexei Ratmansky’s “Piano Concerto #1” to music by Shostakovich featuring Zhenya Vitort on piano and Tim White on trumpet. The 2013 piece is the last of a trilogy Ratmansky created to honor the composer’s artistic and personal struggles in the Soviet era.
It is visually splendid. George Tsypin’s set includes suspended airplane, bolt, star, and other assorted red shapes – Calder meets constructivism. The large cast is costumed by Keso Dekker in red leotards and gray unitards for the soloists, and wonderful half-red, half-gray outfits for the corps. As lit by Jennifer Tipton, those give the ensemble work the feel of rippling, shimmering mobile sculptures. Foregrounded duets telegraph ardent, thwarted romance in a world of industrial and martial chaos.
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Under the artistic direction of Karen Kain, the evening, throughout, highlighted the troupe’s clarity of line, exceptional timing, and youthful energy.
The National Ballet of Canada at the Kennedy Center Opera House through February 2. Karen Kain, artistic director. Barry Hughson, executive director. David Briskin, music director and principal conductor, with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. Reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka.