WILLIAM FORSYTHE's evening-length ``Artifact'' is a shrewd amalgam of the trendiest European avant-garde ideas, from Apollinaire and Gertrude Stein to Robert Wilson and Pina Bausch, salted with a few Americanisms and dressed in opera-house taste, form, and largess. Forsythe, an expatriate New Yorker, now heads the Frankfurt Ballet, and his highly touted works for this company have been part of the PepsiCo SummerFare at the State University of New York in Purchase.
Whether one thinks Forsythe is the future standard-bearer of classical ballet, as some critics do, or just the latest hotshot to tackle the rehabilitation of a feeble tradition, the theatricality of his work can't be denied.
``Artifact'' begins while the audience is still entering the theater. The curtain goes up on an expressionistically limelit and shadowed stage.
Very slowly, a woman in a leotard (Amanda Miller) with slicked-back, mannish white hair walks across the space, making obscure gestures with her hands.
The audience calms down, and the expectant mood holds for the next five minutes or so, as the woman crosses and recrosses in different patterns of illumination, until the house lights finally go down and the doors to the lobby are closed.
By this time we know the piece is going to be about the nature of the dancer and her relationship to the audience. Two hours later we don't know much more, except that Forsythe has projected us into a state where we must question that nature and that relationship for ourselves, and extend whatever we thought were their limits.
He certainly doesn't offer us a conventional ballet, or draw our attention to dancers in the usual ways.
In fact, the featured performers are not dancers at all. In addition to the androgynous, mysterious Miller, there's Kathleen Fitzgerald, dressed like an operatic diva, who recites a series of words with indefinite and endlessly interchangeable meanings.
``She went inside and thought.
``He came outside and forgot.
``They'll always forget when.
``You were inside there.''
With shafts of light slanting up into the pitch-dark stage from the rim of the orchestra pit, Fitzgerald approaches a glowing trap in the floor. Hands (Miller's, it turns out) reach up from inside it and make what might be the right gestures for the cryptic monologue.
Meanwhile, Nicholas Champion trudges around carrying a microphone and a bullhorn, sometimes answering Fitzgerald's litany and sometimes making subverbal sounds.
Dancers glide through the gloom, and for 20 minutes there isn't even enough light to make out their bodies fully, let alone their faces. They function like a chorus of opera singers, moving in mass formations, creating a backdrop or a commentary, or reflecting the actors' Angst.
Occasionally they constitute the main action, but it's always as a group that we see them, never as individuals.
Even the three solo couples are merely The Couples, the pace being too fast and dense to distinguish them.
The movement itself, except where it's deliberately academic, seems to pit the body against itself. One part is thrown or twisted so far that it requires some extreme countermovement to prevent the dancer from falling.
In the duets the men, strong as stevedores, haul around and anchor the women, who often have to spread their limbs rakishly and spin in wide arcs to a dead stop. Their tempo seldom sinks below a sprint.
Forsythe seems to see the stage as a painter's canvas, and the dancers as moving compositional motifs.
The dances are built for general dazzle but not for specific virtuosity, so he can chop them up, rearrange them, overlap dissimilar phrases, to create his effects.
One section starts out with the women in a classroom lineup doing increasingly deranged arm progressions and tendus. Suddenly, shockingly, the curtain begins to fall, faster and faster. It hits the floor with a sickening thud.
The music (the Chaconne for solo violin from Bach's Partita in D Minor) continues, and soon the curtain rises on a different formal dance pattern, crashes down, rises - six or seven times.
The viewer is forced to give up being engrossed in the movement, and to consider dancing as infinitely capable of pleasing transformations. Who gets the credit isn't the dancers, but the designer/choreographer.
``Artifact'' is a succession of coups de th'e^atre, each one using the dancers but not featuring what they do. After an intermission the classical order gives way to postmodern chaos.
Fitzgerald recycles her text once again, working up from a tone of loud accusation to a screaming tantrum - ``And every time I step outside I forget what I never see!'' - while Champion grunts into his megaphone and music blares and dancers jiggle and thrash in front of white flats painted with neat graffiti.
Later they reassemble in another species of order.
I never lost interest in ``Artifact,'' and I never liked its pretension, its imitativeness, or its complete depersonalization of the dancers. If this is the future of ballet, it's going to be a beautiful but desolate scenario.