writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

The American Forsythe

Frankfurt Ballet
Brooklyn Academy of Music
September 30-October 5, 2003

By Nancy Dalva
Copyright ©2003 by Nancy Dalva

Native son William Forsythe returned to New York City this week, to warm acclaim. The four performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music were the last here for the Frankfurt Ballet, which will disband next summer after a final American tour. Having fallen out with the city burghers, the maverick Forsythe, who has for some twenty years directed his troupe under Frankfurt's sponsorship, will then move on. (Though perhaps not far. At press time, he had any number of balls in the air, including regrouping under a new banner in Frankfurt itself.) Like that other prodigal, Mark Morris, who made rude remarks about Belgian royalty and Bejart and was booted out of Brussels, Forsythe has only gained in American affection from his recent political difficulties abroad. With interesting synchronicity, the program he brought here, four works new to New York, was distinctively American looking, while usually what one sees of Forsythe here looks European.

This visit, the choreographer seemed to be staking his claim as a post-modernist, showing chastely lighted, for the most part casually costumed, non-narrative, dances. (Forsythe himself devised all the light and clothing, excepting the last dance, for which Steven Galloway is credited with the nondescript attire.) The musical accompaniment, all by Forsythe collaborator Thom Willems, was unintrusive, and indeed often reticent to the point of complete quiet. There was no reliance on spoken texts.

The evening transpired as a clearly structured program of unclearly structured work. The first, The Room As It Was, for a cast of eight, seems to have no reliance on time, or indeed to take any notice of it, wandering on in a vague sort of way. It employs multiple foci, as when one man is seated facing upstage; a couple behind him is involved in a duet; a woman to their right is watching them while performing a solo; and a second couple to her right is absorbed in another duet. These activities remain discrete, and they do not make a composition—that is, a stage picture with some pictorial value. Throughout, there is a trading of weird and idiosyncratic movement motifs, for instance the crossing of one leg over the other, with the foot of the under-leg uncomfortable flexed. As for rhythm, there is none, but merely random changes in velocity.

The lack of music reminded some of Merce Cunningham, who famously makes his work apart from music. But even more so than dance made to a score, Forsythe's temporally aimless work is the exact opposite of Cunningham's. Time is anything but random to the stop-watch wielding Cunningham. Time is his music. (Even a dance of sixty minutes, with no reliance whatsoever on external cues, comes in performance after performance within a few seconds of itself.) In contrast, Forsythe, who appears to rely on visual cuing, folds time into space. Not the fourth dimension, but the Forsythe dimension.

Duo, which was either a duet for two women or a quartet for four breasts, seemed to be about telling time—that is, the women appeared to be parts of a clock. I found it highly reminiscent of but infinitely less emphatic than Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker's Fase, a clockwork tour de force set to Steve Reich. The women in Duo—Allison Brown and Jill Johnson on the night I saw it—seem to be loosely linked in a joint enterprise involving the arms and then the legs in pendulum swings. Sometimes they are in unison, sometimes in what looks like canon or fugue; sometimes they do the same thing but facing different directions. They seem to dance by some kind of ad hoc agreement, as if in conversation, rather than by pattern, and yet the eye seeks pattern out. The choreographer broke faith with minimalism by dressing the women ( or should one say undressing them?) in totally transparent black body stockings and shiny black satin bikini briefs, not to mention icky, naked looking little socks. Give up a little austerity, gain a little glam. A case of tit for tat.

As if estrogen called forth testosterone, the next dance (N.N.N.N.), was a quartet for men, quite individual. Despite its uselessly cryptic title, it was by far the most extrovert in the program, and the most inviting. Certain passages of dissolves and a certain rough and tumble recall Twyla Tharp, as does the intermingling of form. At its onset, the work has a physic's experiment look to it—if I do this with my arm, then that happens. Indeed, it seems happily rooted in the physical, and thus much less cerebral in affect than the previous dances. Throughout, there is a total guy thing going on, and the guys are handsome indeed. (All the Forsythe dancers are lookers, and highly capable.) Three Stooges, plus one. Three sailors on leave, plus one. Waiting for Godot, when Lucky and Pozzo join Didi and Gogo. Bare stage, four men. There's resonance in numbers, and singularity.

In contrast, One Flat Thing, reproduced features an impersonal expansion of forces, with the company augmented for a big, fast work calibrated to make the world, or at any rate the evening, end with a bang. In the beginning, the company ferociously sets the stage, pushing forward rows of tables to form a grid that they will soon be dancing on, under, and about with calisthenic vigor. All in all, the stage looks like the cafeteria from hell, with the Sharks and the Jets going at it, and no monitor in sight. (Hello, Jerome Robbins!) The tables, which appear to be zinc and might also be taken to be morgue equipment, don't really restrain the dancers, or rein in the work. In fact, Forsythe doesn't move around his dancers any less on a stage filled up with furniture than on an empty one. He is not a spacious choreographer. The unique interest in this work derives from seeing, or feeling, the choreographer develop an emotional arc within a clearly visible structure.(That would be the tables.) At first, the mood was impulsive and extroverted and even jaunty. But by the end there was a different feeling, as if One Flat Thing, reproduced were an episode of Star Trek, and all of the young people, having been assimilated by the Borg, were now operatives in some kind of sinister hive. Maybe this is Forsythe's metaphor for choreographic process: Many bodies folded into one mind.

Of course that mind would be his. Even without texts, or maybe especially without texts, Forsythe's way of interpreting the world seems acutely linguistic, in the way that certain branches of mathematics are linguistic, and yet at the same time the results are profoundly deracinated, with no perceptible logic. The most useful tool to decipher the work would be a decoding device, to put back in order what the choreographer has deconstructed–this most famously being the grammar of classical ballet, though a lot else comes into play as well. Failing that, the best way I can think of to describe the space in which Forsythe operates is this: Imagine a sneeze, the "ah," and the "choo." Forsythe operates in the space in between, but not necessarily in the usual direction. If you could sneeze backwards, you'd find your Forsythe moment between the " choo," and the "a."

The problem, if you want to call it a problem, with all of this picking apart, and retroversion, and introversion is that the choreographer ends up appearing to have no interest nor indeed capacity to effect the things thus erased: structure, shape, and rhythm. These are subsumed to the point of all but vanishing. In the wreckage, any remaining recognizable elements of a particular technique–such as the fine arching of a fine foot—appear at best arbitrary, and at worst, decorative. This is ironic, because one feels Forsythe is an enemy of the decorative. Here then is the crux. At the Forsythian post-structural nexus of post-modernism and neo-classicism, where everything gets all mixed up and inside-outed and endlessly referred to, the referents are lost. Such work lends itself to analysis—it is itself an analysis—but not abandonment. It is neither romantic nor classical. It contemplates only itself.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 2
October 6, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by Nancy Dalva



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on October 7, 2003