DanceView Times, New York edition
Letter from New York
William Forsythe has been here all week with the Ballett Frankfurt, for performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and talks around town. The program at BAM was a surprise, at least for me: all-dancing, from curtain to curtain; no harangues in a fractured polyglot tongue; scores from Thom Willems, Forsythe’s longtime composer, that were completely appropriate to the stage action; and choreography that seemed to have themes and a focus that even a lumpkin like me, who gave up trying to penetrate the works of Jacques Derrida and Theodor Adorno 20 years ago, could grasp. It may be that the concentration on dancing to put over the theatrical ideas made it possible to see what those ideas are and to appreciate the relationship between the individual phrases that the dancers contribute to the work and the larger editorial shaping and control that Forsythe exerts in the studio and through his customarily brilliant lighting designs. These were works that didn’t look as if they had to prove anything, or compete for something, or impose themselves in order to be recognized. They were dances in the presence of skillfully-designed particles of sound, performed by brilliant movers, and it was pleasant to be in their company for an evening.
We saw four works, which had been given their premières between 1996 and 2002. The oldest, from 1996, was Duo, a suavely synchronized duet for two women, wearing off-white schoolgirl socks and leotards (designed by Forsythe) whose long-sleeved bodices were black illusions, permitting a veiled revelation of their perfectly shaped breasts. As the dance transpired, escorting the women now into a water nymph’s pose on the floor, now into—could it be?—a gargouillade, now into a grand battement or an arabesque penchée, all interpenetrated by transitions and poses whose flexibility and disjunctures were closer to jive than to anything Christian Johannsen might recognize, I could comprehend what Forsythe cherished about classical dancers (in this performance, the SAB-trained Allison Brown and Jill Johnson, of the National Ballet of Canada) and what vexed him about classical ballet as it is conventionally taught and performed—the syntax that he perceives as imprisoning, the grammar that he perceives only as rules to be broken and regulations to be evaded. He can’t see the freedom in the classical language, and so he has provided it with his own idea of freedom, which comes from modern dance and high-school dances at the gym. In the 2002 (N.N.N.N.), a male quartet that seemed to bear a resemblance to a capoiera ceremony, there was little evidence of classical dance, which perhaps helped to account for the investigative edge to the choreography.
The grand spectacle One Flat Thing, reproduced, from 2000, featured a set consisting of 20 metal tables, dragged into a grid by the cast on one, crashing count, which constricted the space and made literal the feeling of being hemmed-in by rules that Duo suggested more softly. And yet, the tables were also useful as places to perform under, around, and on top of: their rigid structure made for strong theatricality, and Forsythe understood that and exploited it. In an advance piece on the company by Alan Riding in The New York Times, Forsythe is quoted as saying that, in this dance, he “tried to create a totally interdependent and isolated Baroque machinery,” a phrase that refers to a book by Francis Spofford ("I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination") about the tragic expedition to the Antarctic led by Robert Scott. Forsythe did manage—quite vividly, for me—to bring something of that tragedy to teeming life. There may be a sense of play in the look of the dance, but there is nothing playful about the kinesthetic events and images taking place within it: the stricken lovers, the skidding accidents and precipitous falls, the frozen head of a man “propped” at the edge of one of the tables, the teeming variety of crashes and breakages and whistles and wind that Willems has invented as an aural environment. It’s a work of the theater, and, in the context of the dances by Forsythe that I’ve been watching since the 1970s, one of his landmarks.
This past Saturday, I went to Pace University, near the Manhattan entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge, to hear Forsythe speak about his affiliation with Frankfurt’s T.A.T.—a former tram station converted into a facility to foster experiments in art—whose direction Forsythe took over in 1999 (succeeding the original director, the moviemaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder) and turned into a small theater and what sounds like a charming and richly appointed, if somewhat unfocused, public space. In the course of the discussion, during which Forsythe spoke with his characteristic fluency, generosity, and, at points, maddening opacity, he tossed off the observation that he feels ideas of opera and theater production today have become “horribly, delinquently antiquated. I feel we should tear down Lincoln Center and see what happens.” It is this political and messianic dimension to Forsythe’s public presence that I still find nightmarish. Suppose one took him (unfashionable as it is to do so) at his word. The building of Lincoln Center displaced hundreds of families who were living in the tenements that formally occupied what is now the center’s campus. Tearing down the center, which is struggling to survive as an arts institution and to overcome internal flaws among its buildings, will not bring back those families, and it would destroy the surrounding neighborhood now in place. Even if you hate the opera, ballet, classical music, and theater—not to speak of the performing-arts library—that constitute the center, even if you’ve never enjoyed an hour seated under the trees at Damrosch Park, to suggest demolishing the area isn’t very funny to New Yorkers who’ve had recent experience of entire city blocks undergoing instantaneous evaporation. Forsythe meant his remark to be a joke, but that he would make it at all—and at Pace, of all places, which is in walking distance from what was once the World Trade Center—bespeaks a streak of insensitivity that continues to give me pause about him as an artist and, given his recent reversals in Germany, an erstwhile builder of postmodern-community empires.
of Sept. 30:
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