William Forsythe’s Pas/Parts 2016, San Francisco Ballet

From the Summer 2016 issue of Ballet Review

San Francisco Ballet in Pas/Parts 2016. Photo by Erik Tomasson.

Since 1987, when then-newly appointed San Francisco Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson took a risk on commissioning William Forsythe’s New Sleep, Tomasson has wanted to win for his increasingly virtuosic dancers another Forsythe premiere. And since 1999, he has wanted to acquire Pas/Parts, one of the last classical, large-ensemble ballets Forsythe made for the Paris Opera Ballet. In the end, to launch SF Ballet’s 2016 season, Tomasson got something of both. Forsythe sente two stagers to teach the existing Pas/Parts, then came himself to rechoreograph sections he deemed “unnecessarily modern.” According to the SFB press office, Forsythe worked so quickly with the dancers during his two weeks in-studio that he ended up rechoreographing three-fourths of this North American premiere.

How dramatically this new incarnation of Pas/Parts differs from the Paris Opera Ballet revival reviewed by the New York Times’s Roslyn Sulcas in 2012 I cannot say. Forsythe’s cool, white lighting against a white-walls design, resembling and apparently pre-figuring Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, remains less assaultive than typical, as does Thom Willems’ twenty-section electronic score. Four years ago, Sulcas described the former version of Pas/Parts as driven by a “playful insouciance.” That remains the case in SFB’s version, which in its most engaging moments evokes an almost MGM-movie flavor of innocent physical comedy.

Carlo di Lanno, Julia Rowe, and Joseph Walsh in Pas/Parts 2016. Photo by Erik Tomasson.

Two highlights of this forty-minute marathon were a trio for Julia Rowe, Carlo di Lanno, and Joseph Walsh in which they caper through twisted-up daisy chains, Rowe whacking her legs around DiLanno’s neck with her falling battement, like a member of the Three Stooges; and a climactic duet for Rowe and Walsh that uses her bouncing releve like a pogo stick. Rowe is just a second-year corps member, while Walsh is a principal. This gives you an idea of the democratic swirl of Forsythe’s casting kaleidoscope, which uses the four stage corners to shoot dancers center stage, where they react with the duet or trio already in progress like protons and electrons sorting out their orbits. New dancers (sixteen total) then enter on the diagonals to mess with the chemistry. In most of the ensemble sections, the forcus is on subtleties of torsion in the epaulement.

In other sections, Pas/Parts pays even more direct homage to Balanchine than the rest of Forsythe’s classical oeuvre, quoting or nearly quoting Agon, Rubies, and the Four Temperaments (including a final lineup of tendus and shooting arms that continues rhythmically until the curtain falls). There’s a whole section based on the women pushing into their pointe in forced arch, like the female ensemble in The Four Temperaments’ “Melancholic” section, and a wonderful part for Dores Andre based on her rolling to flat from forced arch to knock her knees together. Another highlight was the duet between Andre and Frances Chung, the two women teasing each other through a series of fast, precise balances by pushing at each other’s arms.

Fun was the tenor whether Willems’ ostinato score served up chugging train sounds or faint, scrambled voices: a celebration of freedom. The costumes, by Stephen Galloway, dress the women in sporty leotards (no tights), emphasizing muscled thighs, and drape the men in slightly glittering, club-going shirts. Yet the feeling throughout is not at all competitve or provocative; the atmosphere is friendly and humane.

Maria Kochetkova and Francisco Mungamba in Forsythe’s Pas/Parts 2016. Photo by Erik Tomasson.

The trios are the real juice in Pas/Parts, I think, but there was also an unforgettable solo contrasting precise petit allegro legs and a deliciously loose upper body for Walsh, and a shoulders-escaping-a-straightjacket enchainment for unassuming James Sofranko. Sofiane Sylve launched the ballet and threaded through with queenly might. Gracious, glamorous Jennifer Stahl also distinguished herself, as did the leonine corps member Francisco Mungamba.

Pas/Parts is not a big statement ballet like Artifact Suite, nor a tightly packaged bonbon like The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. It is conceptually diffuse, more of a connoisseur’s work, and with this year’s program heavy on overwrought, ill-chosen revivals, it promises to be one of the most rewarding experiences SFB will offer this season. Near the end of the performance, a cell phone in the middle of the orchestra seating began bleeping. I take it as one of the ballet’s virtues that nothing onstage felt punctured, because the classical language being tested in every phrase was not offering anything escapist. The physical language was classicism speaking from now, from the world of the iPhone. It was a magnificently rich tongue.

Copyright 2016 by Rachel Howard. Reprinted from the summer 2106 issue of Ballet Review.