Helen Pickett danced with Forsythe's Ballett Frankfurt for more than a decade, but you wouldn't know it from the first two sections of her Pärt I, II, and III, a triptych of pieces set to music by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. (All three were made on the company: Tsukiyo premiered in 2009, and Layli o Majnun and Tabula Rasa are new, though Layli o Majnun had a preview at the 2010 "Night of Stars" gala.) Layli o Majnun is based on an Arabic tale of a young Bedouin poet who falls in love with Layli and, when her father forbids their marriage, goes mad, whereupon he's called Majnun, or the Madman. Flanked by two banners with Arabic writing, Larissa Ponomarenko (Layli) and Yury Yanowsky (Majnun) first appear in a series of silent, chiaroscuro tableaux: he kneels in a crucified position and she lies down beside him; they walk side by side; he stumbles. Then the scrim rises, the music starts, and Ponomarenko and Yanowsky embark on a series of agonized clinches and lifts. A third dancer emerges from the shadows, Lorin Mathis as Madness; he tries to draw Majnun away, but Layli clings to him, and in the end Madness has to retreat.
Tsukiyo is another love story, this time based on a Japanese folktale. The title means "moonlit night," and that's when a mortal encounters what seems to be a goddess silhouetted against the full moon. She's fearful, he's enchanted, and they dance for what seems like an eternity before it's clear she'll have to return to her moon. The score is Pärt's luscious Spiegel im Spiegel ("Mirror in the Mirror"), a mesmerizingly slow (and it seemed slower last night than it did in 2009) violin cantilena over repeating piano arpeggios. Last night, Lia Cirio and Sabi Varga were more affecting than I remember their being when they did it in 2009; I still find her a shade exaggerated and him a shade recessive, however. As in Layli o Majnun, there's very little space between the lovers — it's as if they were trying to burrow into each other.
Tabula Rasa is a puzzle: not a duet, not a love story, more of a third wheel. The prop here is a grid of blue lights overhead that keep turning into Roman candles. John Lam kicks off the terpsichorean fireworks before getting shunted off stage by a quartet of men. The two women — Ichikawa and Whitney Jensen — are high-profile, but they don't make a big impact on the six men, who bob and weave and whirl in a way that suggests a boxing ring. (The gongs that punctuate the high-register violins only add to the sense of ceremony.) Forsythean in affect but not in rigor, it ends with two couples paired off at opposite ends while in the middle, not elevated at all, the remaining four men look set to duke it out.
Jirí Kylián's Bella Figura (1995), which got its American premiere last night, isn't just beautiful, it's transcendent. It's also very Baroque — and I don't mean just the music, which ranges from snippets of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater to Marcello, Vivaldi, Torelli, and contemporary Lukas Foss. The audience returns from the second intermission to find dancers milling about the stage in silence, warming up, trying out stuff, underneath a pair of transparent boxes containing nude mannequins. When the ballet proper starts, to music from Foss's Salomon Rossi, Ichikawa is at one side of the stage trying to extract herself from an omnivorous black curtain and Varga is at the other trying to unknot himself while upside down in a box. They look like a hapless Andromeda being devoured by the sea monster and a feckless Perseus trying to unsheath his sword.