Blake Works I – William Forsthye

Feb 11, 2021

Martha Buss

Martha Buss


Venue: Opéra national de Paris, Paris
Date: 19 September 2019
Ticket price: 10€

A pulsating modern ballet that sets the traditional form within an accessible framework for new audiences.

My evening was set against the beautiful architecture and grand design of the Opéra national de Paris, as commissioned in 1669 by King Louis XIV whom himself was a key pioneer of ballet. With a private loge and glass of wine, the romantic setting already made for a memorable night. William Forsythe’s Blake Works I was second on the bill, preceded by Hiroshi Sugimoto’s At the Hawk’s Well. Despite his credentials as a leader in Japanese visual art, the performance left me bemused and resultantly my expectations for the second act were moderated.

The curtain rose on Blake Works I, performed by the Paris Opera Ballet to the recorded music of English singer/songwriter James Blake. The piece was originally created for the same company back in 2016 whilst Forsythe was resident choreographer at the Paris Opera during their 2015-2016 season. Since, it has been reworked true to his reimagining style. The pure voice of James Blake, who I’m ashamed to have not known of before, instantly engaged my curiosity. With a minimal set and simple pale blue costume, the emotive movement could take centre stage and effortlessly created a captivating atmosphere in the auditorium: with the audiences’ gaze in an equilibrium of suspense and indulgence. The corps de ballet’s technique surpassed that of classical companies I have seen perform in recent years. Springing between the electronic beats in a trance-inducing excerpt to ‘I Hope My Life’ instantly defined the punchy ensemble. Perhaps a choice to be expected in Forsythe’s choreography considering his rebellious interest in bending the ‘rules’ of ballet. Such attitude continued through group numbers and was exemplified by the dancers in a display of turn taking tinged with playful arrogance.

Blake Works I, choreographed by William Forsthye | Ballet de l’Opera national de Paris. © Ann Ray and Julien Benhamou. 

The work is divided by each of the seven songs providing a neat opportunity to change choreographic scenes. Interestingly this did not distract or damage the rhythm of Blake Works I, but instead felt like we were journeying through a select programme of intimate relationships. One of two pas de deux, danced by principles Léonore Baulac and Hugo Marchand to the track ‘Colour in Anything’, could simply redefine tenderness and is the first time I have been brought physically to tears whilst watching a ballet (of which I have flattering post-­show evidence). The vulnerability of Blake’s tone added a touching dimension to all the partnering and contact work. With protective and caring gestures stretched to their extreme, each caress held a tangible depth. The delicate choreography to track ‘I Need a Forest Fire’, featuring Icelandic artist Bon Iver, particularly struck me as unique and upon listening now never fails to take me back to this performance.

An interesting feat to pair classical ballet with pop music, but one that Forsythe has appeared to achieve effortlessly. Even when approaching 70, the established choreographer has a profound ability to articulate work for modern audiences.

Desperate to see the full-length production again, I was delighted to see that English National Ballet had commissioned the work as part of a Forsythe Evening (originally premiering in their 2021 Spring season). I already plan to attend whenever audiences are able, hoping to drag various friends and family who have suffered through my attempts to describe the work’s excellence. I would encourage anyone with an interest in contemporary dance, ballet or James Blake’s music to also snap up tickets.  

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