Under the leadership of Aaron Watkins, whose remarkable career included years dancing as a principal with Ballett Frankfurt and then becoming William Forsythe's choreographic assistant, setting his ballets worldwide, the SemperOper Ballett Dresden has asserted itself as one of the best modern classical ballet companies in Europe. I’ll add that it’s one of probably very few ensembles that truly master Forsythe’s repertoire. It is a treat then, for Londoners, that the company’s first ever run at Sadler’s Wells is an all-Forsythe bill.

Yumiko Takeshima and Raphael Coumes Marquet in <i>In the middle, somewhat elevated</i> © Costin Radu
Yumiko Takeshima and Raphael Coumes Marquet in In the middle, somewhat elevated
© Costin Radu

His most popular work opens the evening with a bang. Created for the Paris Opera Ballet (and, famously, for Sylvie Guilem’s singular physicality and artistry) In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated shook ballet to its core when it premiered in 1987. For 26 mins, dancers clad in emerald green leotards or unitard and line-enhancing see-through footless black tights succeed each other in solos, duets and group vignettes intented to defy the codes of the classical form with formidable détente. Arms and legs overextend, yet fold back in like the perfect rebounds of a masterfully aimed boomerang, opposite limbs overcross before reaching back out just that little bit beyond what your eye expects to be the opposite end and suspension of the movement, and spirals both around and within the dancers’ bodies continue to coil well beyond the limits of the pulse. The overall effect is sharp, fierce and steel-like, but it’s also incredibly calm, collected and neat. On the Semperoper dancers, it’s very neat. Whilst personalities pierce through Thom Willems’ score when choreographically given the opportunity, the lasting impression is of a unified ensemble in complete symbiosis technically and artistically, a reflection of the company’s high calibre and identity.

Jenni Schaeferhoff and Emanuele Corsini in <i>Neue Suite</i> © Ian Whelan
Jenni Schaeferhoff and Emanuele Corsini in Neue Suite
© Ian Whelan

The evening continues with Neue Suite, a collection of pas de deux which succeed each other through a rainbow of moods and shades, which premiered in Dresden in 2012, though each pas stems from earlier larger works of Forsythe, originally devised in Frankfurt in the 90s. Each dance highlights a different aspect of Forsythe’s choreographic explorations into new movement, new possibilities and new combinations, and together they greatly highlight just how firmly Forsythe’s language stems from sound classical roots. Where some have broken away from the conventions and rigours of classical form to create brand new, somewhat avant-garde movements, Forsythe has dived, as it transpires with Neue Suite, even deeper into the possibilities offered by the technique, the classically trained body, and the relationship inherent to pas de deux work to offer a purer, super streamlined, and modern aesthetic. Whilst Neue Suite is abstract, in the sense that, like In the Middle, it doesn’t offer a narrative plot, it provides nonetheless interesting opportunities for expression to its dancers, and for emotion in the audience, through its study of partnerships, and relationships. 

Here again, the Semperoper displays sound technique, impeccable control throughout, and interesting interpretations. Aidan Gibson and Casey Ouzounis stood out in Berio 1-2-3 and Karina Stahnke and Houston Thomas won my heart with their warm and ebullient performance of Handel 4.

Anna Merkulova and Max Genov in <i>Enemy in the Figure</i> © Costin Radu
Anna Merkulova and Max Genov in Enemy in the Figure
© Costin Radu

The evening closes with Enemy in the Figure which rounds off the programme on a very modern note. Though it premiered in 1989 in Frankfurt, the piece is startlingly contemporary. Sleek designs featuring a curved wall diagonally dividing the stage into two, an exposed backstage wall (with ballet barres and a fire exit) and a portable light projector brought León and Lightfoot’s work for NDT to mind – that was before I remembered Enemy in the Figure is nearly 30 years old, and foregrounding. Dressed in either black or white ballet gear or a combination of both, often bare legged (those beautiful lines on show again) and here and there incongruously covered up, the dancers run around the stage relentlessly, driven, it seems, by an uncontrollable need to be on either one or the other side. At times, some of them run to the wall, and a second dancer leans in, blocking their route, like bodies momentarily suspended mid-phrase. The projector-turned prop wheeled around by dancers during the piece offered polarised contrasts of light and shade, but also – so I felt – provoked reactions in some of the dancers suddenly thrown in the spotlight.

Aesthetically, the work departs from the neoclassical idioms of the earlier works, and presents a more pluridisciplinary signature. If In the Middle was the balletic equivalent of Picasso and Braque’s first ‘deconstructed yet reconstructed in search of profound purity’ cubist proposals, then Enemy in the Figure is an altogether different modern enterprise, one still respectful of the classical origins, but with an abstract expressionist impetus. And just like with Pollock and Rothko’s artwork, I’d say there’s infinite beauty and finesse amidst the busy-ness of Enemy in the Figure. Conceptually, it’s open to interpretation. I related the wall on stage to the geographical and metaphorical wall(s) of the sociocultural context prevalent at the time. With that idea in mind I found the dénouement of the piece, with one dancer repeatedly knocking on the wall (with silence the answer) as the lights dimmed down and the curtain dropped particularly powerful. The commitment of the dancers to the work's relentless rhythm and physicality left a lasting impression.