William Forsythe’s love affair with the music of British composer, James Blake, has achieved its second iteration in dance with this exhilarating performance of The Barre Project, which started as a means of defeating two frustrations: the one being the lack of opportunity for live work during the wretched lockdown; and the other being the many and various postponements of a much-wished-for collaboration between Forsythe and the New York City Ballet dancer, Tiler Peck. We learned in the chat that followed this filmed performance that two previous attempts to work together had fallen foul of the 'flu (with each one separately smitten) and so there was a certain ironic rough justice in their connection eventually being possible due to another virus, since both choreographer and dancer suddenly had precious space in their schedules.

Tiler Peck
© The Barre Project

The original Blake Works was made, in July 2016, on 21 dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet, set on seven songs from Blake’s album The Colour in Anything with Forsythe’s forensic musicality articulating the syncopated and poetic melodies into a visual feast of layered movement. For this Blake Works II, Forsythe raided his playlist for five more pieces from the dubstep composer’s extensive catalogue, ranging over a decade from Buzzard & Kestrel (taken from his 2010 debut EP, The Bells Sketch, with its muffled vocals, catchy percussion and high-pitched dog whistles) through to the multiple layering of Blake’s own vocal tracks in Lullaby For My Insomniac (the closing track from 2019’s Assume Form album). Although stylistically related, the range and eclecticism of the music is astonishing with counts that are often fiendishly complex and different rhythms consecutively at play.

Multi-layered ethereal vocals are prevalent through Lindisfarne I (the first part of a split song on his debut studio album, entitled James Blake), with short passages of a cappella text peppered with silences, which Forsythe utilises to choreograph the sensual movement of several hands at the barre (it transpired that one of the hands belonged to the film-maker, Devin Jamieson).

Brooklyn Mack, Tiler Peck, Lex Ishimoto and Roman Mejia
© The Barre Project

Alongside Blake and Forsythe, Jamieson is the third creative force behind The Barre Project, since his intimate knowledge of dance brought a powerful sense of theatre to this studio-shot work (in his comments after the show, Forsythe expressed astonishment at how the camerawork had somehow added significant depth to the studio space); and Brandon Stirling Baker brought a refreshing coolness to the lighting hues. This is certainly up amongst the best dance films I have seen in the past year achieved by this slick integration of all the elements, every one of which was out of the top drawer, adding up to even more than the sum of its parts.

Forsythe’s choreography thickens the richness of Blake’s songs, typically effervescent in its attack – several times the thought struck me that as well as building on Blake Works I, this was a natural extension of the exuberance in his Playlist (Track 1, 2) for English National Ballet - and luxuriating in his deep understanding of the music (Forsythe claims to have had heard Lindisfarne thousands of times before setting it to dance and who would disbelieve him on this evidence)!

Brooklyn Mack and Tiler Peck
© The Barre Project

His choreography is superbly articulated by Peck and her three male attendants: Lex Ishimoto, Brooklyn Mack and Roman Mejia. They are so on point in their integration that it is hard to believe that they learned the work separately on Zoom and even more so that each section of the film was largely shot in one take. This latter fact exemplifies the dancers’ determination to treat the filmed performance as if it were live and the strength of that focus was palpable throughout.

Tiler Peck is a complete dancer, bringing the skills of jazz, Broadway, contemporary and ballroom into a striking balance with elite classical ballet. Her control of diverse movements at speed is astonishing, all achieved with a full-on, obvious and infectious enjoyment of her art. The height and stretch of her relevés on demi-pointe made one double-take on the fact that she was not wearing pointe shoes.

Hard to choose but my favourite section was the dance to 200 Press (the name reflecting Blake’s decision to press only 200 vinyl copies of the 2014 EP) in a quartet that had super fast entrances and exits and included a duet for Peck and the charismatic Mack, which was inspired by watching Instagram film of young Russian ballroom dancers. This fascinating and enriching filmed event was a surprisingly close approximation to experiencing a live stage performance and the work can – and surely will – translate seamlessly into a live show. Tantalisingly, at the end of the Q&A session following the performance, Forsythe promised that there will be a Blake Works III. I, for one, can’t wait.

This performance was reviewed from the CLI Studios video stream