This is such a quiet evening of dance that the humming of a telephone in vibrate mode reverberates around the auditorium, as if a tube train is rattling along inside its tunnel.  An immediate sense of relief at the termination of this unwelcome noise proved only temporary since the humming soon recommenced; no doubt to let the phone’s owner know that a voicemail had been received. Any noise – squeaking seats, suppressed coughs, pins dropping – was magnified throughout this brief evening of dance.

<i>Epilogue</i> © Bill Cooper
© Bill Cooper

This cerebral exercise in pure dance, stripped bare, is much more challenging than it is entertaining. The stage is unadorned; the costumes nondescript (t-shirts, track pants and vests) except for coloured, arm-length gloves that make an appearance from the penultimate work until the end. 

There is a significant range in the dancers’ ages with a majority being former members of William Forsythe's Ballet Frankfurt and/or The Forsythe Company; two of whom also perform with the Berlin-based Dance On ensemble for dancers aged over 40. There may have been a significant age range, but it was in no way obvious in terms of movement capability or stamina. These were mighty fit minds and bodies, whatever their age. The mathematical structures, both within and between these works, were of such complexity that it clearly taxed minds as much as bodies.

The Quiet Evening consisted of five works although they were each joined together in some meaningful way. The opening group was a triptych with a Prologue and Epilogue added as a wraparound for Catalogue, which was first performed as part of this theatre’s Elixir Festival, in 2017. This meat within the sandwich is a masterpiece of memory as Jill Johnson and Christopher Roman (the Dance On members) perform a duet of perpetual motion, isolating and activating each component in a catalogue of the mechanics of ballet: at first, the movement is all in the arms; and then through flexing the body and, finally, bringing steps to the party. It’s like an intellectual version of the comic solo, Ballet 101 (by Eric Gauthier), but without the sardonic narrative or the explosive finale. Catalogue is not without humour, which comes in brief flickers through the sideways looks between the partners, before resuming seriousness. It must require a marathon of concentration.

It is front-ended by another silent duet, for Parvaneh Scharafali and Ander Zabala, which enjoys a casual baroque quality – formal courtly lines interspersed with hands-in-pockets promenades – and into which the vague, distant sound of birdsong can be detected. The Epilogue introduced music for the first time (spartan piano compositions by Morton Feldman) accompanying a quickfire succession of duets and solos, mixing and matching five of the dancers (including an impressive quick return for Johnson and Roman), now wearing the distinctive coloured gloves.

The opening act concluded with a rerun of the male duet, DUO2015, now known as Dialogue, which was originally created for two female dancers at Ballet Frankfurt – back in 1996 – then reprised by The Forsythe Company, again for two women, in 2003; and finally performed – in this version - by Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts during Sylvie Guillem’s farewell Life in Progress tour, in 2015.  It is the same dancers who bring it back to the stage here, although to a very different soundscape: Thom Willems’ thumping music being replaced by that distant birdsong.  Clearly a last-minute change of tack by Forsythe since the printed programme still credits Willems as the composer. This work continues the theme of disaggregating and reconstructing the jigsaw of classical ballet language with flexed backs, long arm extensions and balancing beyond the point of equilibrium. Gjoka and Watts are a dynamic duo who perform with an evenly-matched, ebullient panache.

The evening concludes with a new work entitled Seventeen/Twenty One, inspired by the codification of courtly dance during the reign of Louis XIV and set, appropriately, to the baroque compositions of Jean-Philippe Rameau. Forsythe focuses on that key transition to a formal system of movement – the origins of ballet – for his manual of movement, but he acknowledges that the formal language of dance is always transitioning, by utilising the extraordinary movement quality of Rauf “RubberLegz” Yasit. This innovative b-boy underwent a crash course in the rudiments of ballet to help his assimilation into the classically-trained ensemble but it is the contrast of their courtly formalities with his largely floor-based work, regularly tying and untying his limbs while spinning on one hand, that gives the work a heart.

The transient irritation of mobile ‘phone vibrations aside, the wonderful achievement of this Quiet Evening of Dance lies in the deconstructive examination of the origins of ballet, performed with such gusto by this diverse mix of dancers. It is hard to contemplate that such frenetic activity on stage – a whirlwind of motion from start to finish – can be packaged in an event of such rare tranquillity.