New York — It was after 11 p.m., and half the audience had gone home, when the Paris Op'era Ballet's second program at the Metropolitan Opera House staggered to its apogee, William Forsythe's ``in the middle, somewhat elevated.'' The work, seen a few weeks ago here in New York, was created for the company and was having its United States premi`ere on the company's just-completed tour. The Forsythe devotees screamed en masse, but the best I can say for the piece is that it has a lot of dancing and a refreshing lack of theatrical diversions.
Forsythe is being touted by some critics as the crown prince of classical ballet, and excoriated by others as its fiend incarnate. He consolidated both positions this spring with ``Behind the China Dogs'' for the New York City Ballet's American Music Festival, a week at City Center with his own Frankfurt Ballet, and now ``in the middle....'' Forsythe's dance values are featured in the simple production - he designed his own cutout leotards and the characteristic strong white lighting that glares directly downward so it obliterates the dancers' faces.
Forsythe's movement was based on strong pointes and extreme flexibility for the women, muscular arms and torsos for the men, and everyone's ability to spin like mad. Detail was found in the shape of the gesture, not in the intricacy of the step. There's no phrasing and hardly any repetition or development. The dancers burst into whirlwind motion, then left off and stood around watching each other temperamentally, while Tom Willems's unvarying pulse music mutated from one set of synthesized chirps and thuds to another.
The ballet is a workout. The audience's excitement came from the work's constant dynamism, and from the way that stopped, often precarious poses suddenly interrupted the streaking momentum. This kind of virtuosity has been around for at least 20 years. Forsythe seems new, I suppose, because he pushes dancers faster than anyone has before.
The evening's program began at the other extreme of European opera house ballet, where dancing takes a back seat to theatricality. Maguy Marin's 45-minute spectacle ``Le,cons de t'en`ebres'' (Fran,cois Couperin) gave the prevalent woman-as-victim genre a saintly gloss, as 10 identically clad women in turn underwent various trials and rituals preparatory to martyrdom at the hands of 13 male priestlings.
At first the stage was occupied by an enormous golden throne or altar where a golden saint was enshrined. A procession of noblemen prostrated themselves before the statue, each pulling off a piece of her raiment as he left. Stripped down to a white shift, she slumped, vulnerable and human, and the scourging could start. As in a Martha Graham epic (I'm reminded especially of her Joan of Arc dance, ``Seraphic Dialogue''), each of the female dancers represented an aspect of the same woman, perhaps the spirit of the fallen city of Jerusalem referred to in Couperin's text, the ``Lamentations'' of Jeremiah.
She was anointed, then immersed in a tub of black liquid. She was dragged across the stage on sheets of cloth. She was flung about, threatened, and carried upside down by the men. She dumped dirt onto the floor from her skirt - a nod to the mistress of Tanztheater, Pina Bausch, who was shoveling dirt on a grand scale during the same week at Brooklyn Academy.
Intermittently the martyr figure emoted and anguished, while the men stalked her. Marin's choreography looked like warmed-over early Martha Graham, and it hardly showed up amid the d'ecor. This included 13 six-foot-high candles at the back of the stage and huge mirrored panels overhead that reflected dramatic lighting projections on the floor and distorted the action nightmarishly. At the end, after she had her hair shorn off, the last woman was laid out and wafted to heaven by means of wires and a harness inside her dress.
What was exalted about the ballet was the music, sublimely sung by No'emi Rime and V'eronique Gens and conducted by William Christie, who also accompanied on the organ.