We are transfixed.
And so it goes for the rest of Steptext, one of three ballets that the Pennsylvania and Milwaukee Ballet is performing at the Shubert Theater through Oct. 16. As with DeGregory's opening "speech" - or steptext - the combination of Forsythe's titillating choreography and the cast's intense rendition makes the Philadelphia premiere of Steptext the company's most thrilling foray into contemporary ballet to date.
A psychological as well as linguistic thriller, Steptext takes place in a figurative boxing ring. There are four contenders - at Wednesday's opening performance they were DeGregory, David Krensing, Jeffrey Gribler and Melissa Podcasy.
Ah, yes. Cherchez la femme! If I am reading the subtext of the steptext correctly, it is the role of the woman that gives the ballet its central heat (not to mention that she wears a flame-red unitard).
Moving from man to man with enigmatic determination, she is both the stalker and the stalked. For while she is dancing with one man, the other two are signaling each other in the crazy, arcane language of Forsythe, as if conspiring against her. The stage is always tense with watchfulness, with undercurrents of jockeying for position.
But who has the upper hand? This is another mysterious aspect.
On the one hand, the woman is the manipulator.
On the other, it is the men who manipulate her body in the duets, turning her inside out in configurations you'd never dreamed were possible.
These startling movements - performed by Podcasy with an extraordinary mix of fire and ice - are reason enough to see Steptext. Those who love puzzles will want to see it more than once.
Steptext is set to segments of a Bach violin partita. Forsythe uses the music for more unsettling purposes, as an intrusion that breaks into the dance in fits and starts. But because Bach's music is muscular and knotty, it complements the choreography perfectly. You don't think twice about it.
The relationship between music and dance is all you'll think about in Richard Tanner's Gallimathias Musicum, a Philadelphia premiere.
Using a typically Mozartean piece of music written when the composer was all of 10 years old, Tanner has conceived a ballet as muscular, dense and stressed-out as the Forsythe work. Even the courtly flourishes, the tiny shifts of weight and curtsies in the ensemble dances have a modern-day angst to them. The three duets and one quartet that constitute the bulk of the work are outright exercises in physical stress - and in the case of the DeGregory/ Tamara Hadley pairing, emotional stress as well.
While I admire Tanner's imagination and the fine craftsmanship with which he develops motifs, I also wonder if he hasn't bent Mozart totally out of shape. Tanner's plan to zap Mozart into the 20th century ends up, I think, a purely intellectual game at best and an act of stubborn willfulness at worst.
The program closed with Balanchine's deceptively simple but eye- and soul- filling Symphony in C, a ballet set to Bizet. It was given a glorious performance by all. The principals were Hadley and DeGregory, Lisa Sundstrom and Jock Soto (a guest artist from the New York City Ballet), Debra Austin and Marin Boieru, and Roseanne Germer and Theodore Brunson.
Of special note were the silken performances of Sundstrom in the adagio and her cavalier, Soto, whose partnering was so deft, he seemed to be almost an invisible support.