William Forsythe's 1991 ballet The Second Detail begins with 13 dancers in ice-blue leotards and tights, facing away from the audience. On the floor downstage center is a placard with the word "THE." This enigmatic opening pretty much sums up the æsthetic of Boston Ballet's "Bella Figura" program, which also includes Helen Pickett's Pärt I, II, and III and Jirí Kylián's Bella Figura (through May 8 at the Opera House).
Forsythe laid out his platform of resistance to conventional ballet a decade before The Second Detail, proposing a skewed but highly visible classical language, with elements of shock and mysterious intrusions of symbolic material. As artistic director of the Frankfurt Ballet until 2004, he controlled the resources of an opera-house stage, and he designed his own dramatic lighting and sets as well as the choreography. Contemporary ballet as a genre followed him, but none of it has the clarity or the confidence of his work.
Before the dancers have time to settle on a row of stools upstage, a sound (by Forsythe's long-time musical collaborator, Thom Willems) crashes from the loudspeakers: a synthetic beat that's not exactly drumming and not exactly fireworks. This regular pulse, with embellishments and syncopations, drives the entire ballet. In small, neat ensembles, duets, and stunning solos, the dancers hurl themselves into displays of big ballet steps — jumps, battements, circling enchaînements — that incorporate strange dislocations and vertiginous tilts. They gear into action with pushed-out hip, jutting elbow, slanting head. Instead of finishing a series of steps in a proper, closed fifth position, they often drop their ballet demeanor and stroll away, heels down first. When the accompaniment gets jazzy, they add a little bounce to the step.
Unobtrusively, a woman (Lorna Feijóo opening night) appears in the background. She's wearing a white garment that looks like something improvised out of a sheet to cover a disaster victim. As she flails and lurches among the others, her distorted movement makes theirs look positively graceful. I thought of her as a deconstructed White Swan. They all dance on, until Feijóo falls. As the rest wheel and stride away, one man kicks over the "THE" sign.
Forsythe's dance is simultaneously classical and liberated. As opposed to the placed, stop-and-start behavior of ballet, there's a sense of constant high-energy, space-covering motion. Extremes of technical prowess are performed almost impersonally, with a disciplined athleticism. Forsythe relieves you of ballet's high-art imperatives without sacrificing its physical amplitude.
Pickett danced with Forsythe in Frankfurt before starting to choreograph on her own. Her three-part Arvo Pärt piece — Layli o Majnun, Tsukiyo, Tabula Rasa — begins with two images of ambiguity. Larissa Ponomarenko and Yury Yanowsky are stalked by a shadowy figure of madness or death (Lorin Mathis) whose invisible presence threatens to separate them. Lia Cirio is a goddess of some kind who either desires or shrinks from an adoring Sabi Varga. In the last section, two women and four men stage various competitions under a spectacular chandelier of metallic tubes.
Pickett's dance had a pressured, foreboding feeling fortified by John Cuff's dramatic lighting and the Boston Ballet Orchestra under Jonathan McPhee playing Pärt's creepy minimalism.
Kylián, two years older than Forsythe, fuses a modern-dance lushness and flow with balletic technique. He often turns to non-Western religious and cultural traditions for inspiration. With black curtains moving in and out to form a variety of peep-show openings, Bella Figura (1995) exhibits five women and four men in rubbery, neo-expressionistic combinations. Kylián idealizes the human body as icon, whether it's derived from ancient Indonesian, Indian, Greek, or contemporary models. Eventually all the dancers paraded naked to the waist in voluminous red skirts, flanked by immense flaming braziers.