The BLOG: Culture

Artifact 2017: Profound Ballet or Chaotic Spectacle?

Boston Ballet in William Forsythe’s Artifact 2017. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor.

Like it or not, William Forsythe’s ballet Artifact 2017 elicits a reaction. The full-length contemporary ballet’s unorthodox theatrical and vocal elements accomplish the artistic goal of inspiring questions and creating conversation—even if the question is whether or not Artifact 2017 can be considered “ballet.”

For many, the answer is an emphatic “yes!” It’s important to experience what ballet is in 2017—Forsythe first wrote this ballet in the ‘80s, and now after 30-something years of reworking the choreography, he can finally produce the ballet that he initially wanted, thanks to the expanded limits of a ballet dancer’s capacity, he said in a preview of the show, “Focus on Forsythe.”

Artifact 2017 is essentially a conversation about the evolution of ballet between two (speaking) characters—a rather baroque “Woman in Historical Dress,” doused with drama and dust, and the unassuming “Man with Megaphone” representing the academy who, despite holding a megaphone, speaks very softly and in short, broken phrases. An enigmatic “Woman in Gray” (Company Artist Caralin Curcio on opening night) serves a manifestation of artistic evolution, improvising her arm movements throughout.

“Step inside,” the Woman in Historical Dress says with a clap, swishing her dress and bursting into a nonsensical monologue with phrases like, “You think that you know what you think what you see.” Hearing, seeing, thinking and knowing are recurring themes throughout the dialogue, and essential philosophical points throughout the ballet, exploring art as an artifact. The ongoing philosophizing reminded me of eager debates in a college course (though not necessarily the more intelligent debates).

Artifact 2017 has many virtues with humor, stunning visuals, engaging music, creative dancing and an excellent pas de deux. Some of the clapping stomping creates powerful effects, moments of wide-scale synchronized choreography is intense and the figures create arresting scenes against stark lighting.

The two couples featured in the Act II pas de deux (Principal Misa Kuranaga with Soloist Patrick Yocum, and Principal Kathleen Breen Combes with Principal Eris Nezha on opening night) dance the best and most purely balletic part of the entire production, set to a rich Bach chaconne on violin.

But beyond Act II, the dancers only really dance quick spurts of ballet. The other dancing is interesting, but not incredible. At “Focus on Forsythe,” he dissected fascinating details of the steps and their relationship to the music like the visual theme and variations, but without knowing what to look for, the audience will likely miss Forsythe’s creativity. Musically and philosophically it makes sense that the two pas de deux are simultaneous—as a theme and variation, they go hand-in-hand, slight variations of each other, literally represented in height, speed and momentum. But the effect is negated by the unfortunate fact that our eyes cannot focus on both couples at once.

In an extremely unconventional Act III, the dancers are gathered on separate sides of the stage, male and female, with the Woman in Historical Dress and Man With Megaphone sitting between. As the two characters “converse,” the men and women of the ballet alternate in words and sounds and rhythms of clapping and stomping their feet (some of the dancers brought great personality to this scene). Act III was compelling in an obscure way, but I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the dancers who spent most of the ballet standing, walking, or clapping, or some combination of the three.

Boston Ballet has been proud to be the first North American company to perform Artifact 2017 in its entirety (“2017” was added to the title because large sections were reworked for Boston Ballet), but after attending, I understand why most companies only perform the suite. Yes, the suite leaves audiences without a story, but they are left with some beautiful ballet, which is what many would prefer to see.

William Forsythe packs a lot of ideas into Artifact 2017, and for the sake of art, I will give him the benefit of the doubt that it is genuinely inspired and profound, and that his changes to the choreography are made out of artistic integrity.

Artifact 2017’s storyline asked many questions, as abstract ballets often do, but this time I wasn’t particularly bothered to search for the answers. In contrast, John Neumeier’s Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler, which the Ballet performed last season, also begged for reason in its abstraction, and I still find myself contemplating its meaning. Artifact 2017, though, I found far less compelling.

“William Forsythe” is a huge name in ballet right now, and Boston Ballet is at the beginning of a five-year partnership with the internationally-acclaimed choreographer. His ballets are a total spectacle, and it is easy to see why many are so enamored with his work. But in spite of the hype, I can’t ignore my naturally negative reaction. I enjoyed it more the second time around, perhaps because I felt less lost in the chaos, but Artifact 2017 will likely not stand out in my mind as time goes on.

Boston Ballet will perform Artifact 2017 through March 5 at the Boston Opera House. For more information and tickets, visit the Boston Ballet webpage.