William Forsythe's Artifact is a work which is rarely performed in its entirety, however I remember seeing Artifact when it was performed by Ballett Frankfurt, William Forsythe's then company, at Sadler's Wells in 2001. In an interview with the Telegraph's Sarah Crompton (link), Royal Ballet Flanders' Artistic Director Kathryn Bennetts talked about how she has delayed staging Artifact until she felt her dancers were ready for it, such is the challenging and complex nature of the work.
In addition to the interview by Sarah Crompton, there is also an excellent factsheet written by Ben Lalague for The Ballet Bag (link) which explains the context and structure of Artifact, while on YouTube there are several poor-quality videos - neither of which prepares the audience for the sheer richness of Artifact, with its huge diversity of structure and choreography. Forsythe always blends abstract dance with theatricality, hence the episodic appearances of Character in Historical Costume and Character with Megaphone, often bickering or chuntering, and heckling a hand appearing from a trapdoor in the stage. The other recurring theme was the role of The Other Person, clad in a dirty white leotard, who leads the ensemble of dancers and directing their movements. While the voiceovers from the two Characters can be distracting - "I know, I said rocks but I meant dust!" is one of the best lines - it's an interesting device, making it all too easy to speculate about traditional ballet characters also being able to vocalise their trains of thought - for example, what would Juliet be thinking when confronted with Paris yet again?
The trailer for Artifact shows a huge cast of identical dancers performing repetitive movements, yet the piece is so much more than that; while the ensemble frames the stage, and sometimes fills it in a relentless procession of dancers, the core of the work is in the duets and group sections, and those provide some of the piece's most heart-stopping moments. While Forsythe's technique is balletic, the movement style is definitively modern - and while repetition does not always work, in Artifact, the effect is hypnotic.
The staging is a significant aspect of the production; in Act 2, the curtain drops repeatedly, creating the effect of excerpts or of a showreel: while the curtain is down, the live violinist almost drowns out the sound of hurrying feet, rising to display the dancers in a completely different formation. After a few minutes, the curtain drops again, rising to show us a completely different section of the work. By the second half, the Character in Historical Costume has shed her historical dress for a corset, and is shouting randomly in German; when the curtain sticks partway, she yells "f**king curtain!!"
The lighting, designed by Forsythe himself, is also extremely striking, not least because lighting design is rarely elaborate in ballet, and thus reinforces the modernity of this work. If you've tried to watch any of the videos on YouTube, you'll have noticed that they're very dimly-lit - and that's because the entire piece is very dimly-lit. The effect implies that the dance is of more significance than the dancers themselves, as the dancers are excluded from being lit; in one section of the first half of Artifact, The Other Person stands behind a square of light, while the ensemble are beyond the light's reach, with only their arms and hands being bathed by weak light. One of the most striking effects is in the second half when the dancers appear in silhouette against the rear of the stage.
The range of movement of Character in Historical Movement, performed by Kate Strong, is very limited, largely restricted to expansive arm movements, a performance which is very evocative of the supersize characters in NDT2's Sleight of Hand (Lightfoot/Léon) - and the similarities with NDT2 don't end there; it's easy to imagine Royal Ballet Flanders as a grownup NDT2, with a similar cast of brilliantly-gifted dancers, especially Aki Saito, Geneviève Van Quaquebeke, Alain Honorez and Wim Vanlessen. Ultimately, however, Artifact is about the exquisite movement of a large body of dancers - one of the few shows you'll see this year which will make your heart sing.