London Coliseum; July 5, 2013

Isaac Akiba in William Forsythe's The Second Detail. Photo Gene Schiavone

Isaac Akiba in William Forsythe’s The Second Detail. Photo Gene Schiavone

David Mead

Boston Ballet’s first London programme may have been hugely enjoyable and well-received, but their second offering outdid it on just about every count.

William Forsythe’s “The Second Detail” is typical of his work from the late 1980s and early 1990s. He assaults and manipulates the language of classical ballet, never losing its beauty, but causing us to see it in new ways.

The stage is bare save for a row of chairs that sit upstage against the grey background and on which the dancers, all dressed in an icy blue, rest from time to time. The white light adds to the starkness. What transpires is anything but colourless. From the opening duet by Dusty Button and Patrick Yocum, the whole cast looked liberated. These were dancers with attitude and dancers who were having a good time. They were musical, alert, fluid and precise, but best of all, playful. Their bodies cut through the space with razor sharpness. Limbs snapped between positions and jumps exploded from nothing. The abiding feeling was of watching urban youth, and just like them there were plenty of occasional glances that said “now watch this,” or “follow that!”

Forsythe’s choreography is incredibly complex. There is always something happening. Eyes switch constantly around the mostly busy stage. Groups splinter into lines, couples meet for a brief pas de deux before diving off to find new partners, and there are some astounding solos. It is a tidal wave of exuberance. Dancers frequently enter and leave seemingly at will, sometimes in waves, sometimes individually. It all looked so spontaneous and was tremendous stuff.

Thom Willem’s score may be a tad industrial, certainly pounding, but is quite rhythmic and far from brutal. A pat on the back here for the sound people too. For once it was played at just the right volume.

“Polyphonia” is one of Christopher Wheeldon’s finest works and a child of the Balanchine tradition. In it, he translates ten piano pieces by Ligeti into a range of moods that run from strict to tender, from playful to serious. After an opening section that sets out the movement vocabulary, Wheeldon moves on to a pleasing series of duets, trios and small ensemble dances.

Particularly enjoyable were two duets: a compelling and mesmerising number by Bradley Schlagheck and Ashley Ellis, and a rather zippier affair with Adiarys Almeida and Jeffrey Cirio. Elsewhere, Lasha Khozashvili showed a nice line and approach that contrasted well with the sassier Lia Cirio. Yet, and although everyone produced all the precise and intricate work the choreography demands, somehow, the ballet never got close to matching the Forsythe that had gone before.

Altan Dugaraa, Sarah Wroth, and Yury Yanowsky in Jiri Kylian's Bella Figura. Photo Gene Schiavone

Altan Dugaraa, Sarah Wroth, and Yury Yanowsky in Jiri Kylian’s Bella Figura. Photo Gene Schiavone

‘Bella figura’ literally translates as “beautiful figure,” but is actually rather more a philosophy that emphasises making the best possible impression in all things including image, aesthetics and particularly proper behaviour and how to interact graciously with others, with tact and gentility, which brings us to Jiri Kylian’s ballet of the same name, and the best performed piece of the week.

Usually, the audience would return from the intermission to find the dancers warming up and generally milling around on stage. For some reason here, the curtain wasn’t raised until everyone was settled, which took something away from the beginning, and certainly left no time to contemplate the meaning of the two nude mannequins in transparent coffins hanging overhead.

When the dance starts, it and the staging are so beautiful and mysterious that it’s impossible to tear your eyes away, even for a second. The music, largely Baroque snippets from Pergolesi, Marcello, Vivaldi and Torelli give it a quite penitent and sometimes sorrowful air, although there are moments of Kylian’s humour too, for example when one dancer drops to the floor with a resounding thud. Black curtains rise and fall, creating windows that confine the dancers, create different focuses, and draw the eyes to detail.

Kylian’s genius in “Bella Figura” is making us see dancers as bodies, not specifically male or female. The dancers looked completely at home with the choreography and the mood. Among the more striking moments were a topless Rie Ichikawa being enveloped in the folds of a black curtain, and the sight of nine dancers, male and female, all topless in bright red panniered skirts dancing sensuously to a Torelli siciliana. The partial nudity adds to the beauty, but seems so unforced and natural, it passes almost without thought. Best of all, though, was the central duet. To the Grave from Torelli’s “Concerto Grosso,” Ichikawa and Kathleen Breen Combes each pull a curtain from the side, meeting in the middle where they kneel, before reaching out to each other tenderly and almost spiritually. Finally the curtains all rise to reveal two fires burning upstage. The dancers seem as if they are trying to get each other to relax. Couple by couple they exit, until just one pair is left. The music stops. They stop and walk off.

And so it was goodbye to Boston Ballet too. “Bella Figura” was not only the final work, but an attitude that summed up their visit. They may only have been in town for five days, but they have surely left a lasting impression. They are highly engaging and highly talented company with bags of personality. Just one plea: don’t leave it thirty years until the next visit.