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Flash Review 1, 12-21: In the Extremes,
A Gambol with Forsythe, from the Pure to the Extreme, the Simple to the Boring
By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2001 Chris Dohse
NEW YORK -- William Forsythe, American
emigre, is considered by many to define contemporary ballet. His work falls into
two categories: pieces made for various world-class ballet companies that stay
within the realm of the historic ballet concordance, and more experimental, challenging
environments made for Ballett Frankfurt. His Brooklyn Academy of Music program
this week provided an opportunity for New Yorkers to see two examples of the latter
style that Forsythe made during the 10-year period when he didn't tour here (1988-1998),
plus one new work.
In "Woolf Phrase," which premiered
in March 2001, two figures stand at microphones, taking turns speaking. They drag
the mic stands across the floor, burst into stream-of-consciousness dancing while
various startling lighting effects (designed by Forsythe) take place. Without
revealing the specific narrative of its source material ("Mrs. Dalloway"), the
text parcels Virginia Woolf's prose. In the same indirect way, the dancers' phrases
containing balletic line without precise quotation. Thom Willems's score, an ethereal
susurration, recurs between dialogue.
She (Prue Lang) dances languidly,
quiescently, while he (Richard Siegal) is matter of fact, canine. As the performers
become increasingly percussive, loud and urgent, language drivels into non sequitur
and the yawning mouth of the proscenium arch swallows the figures.
The 1989 "Enemy in the Figure" begins
with the stark lighting (Forsythe) and harsh sound (Willems) of a horror movie.
The floodlight in whose glare two dancers lounge becomes a twelfth character in
the piece as it is manipulated around the wooden, curvilinear wall in the center
of the stage, transfixing and obscuring the dance. The fractured material is willfully
perverse, all fragments and isolations. Many times, figures lurk in the shadows,
emerging only partially from hiding places to flick and coil a large rope lying
on the stage floor.
I remember 1989 pretty well, and
I don't understand what the dance is referencing. Is the audience being punished
for something? Flailing alternates with what looks like jazzercise. It's all extreme:
narcissistic mannequins or uber-marionettes in black costumes that deconstruct
Balanchine's leotard formalism. This frenetic ballet lexicon on speed, guilty
of spawning a generation of Karole Armitage and Michael Clark wannabes, becomes
a bit boring, actually, as the 11 dancers literally throw themselves against the
A small section of the stage floor
is left open for "Quintett" (from 1993). Set to Gavin Bryars's haunting score,
the piece pares Forsythe's vocabulary to its simplest forms. Five super-real bodies
in a cool gray space dance between a lamp and reflector aimed at each other. The
pit becomes an open grave into which the dancers retreat again and again between
solo passages and partnerings.
After the barrage of "Enemy," the
choreography's purity here is a relief, somehow surreally visible. We see its
remarkable language of public and private agonies, its liquid port de bras in
discourse with the tensile extension of ballet history. Forsythe resists ballet's
rigidity, morphs its contours. The lamp's projection briefly becomes a video image
of fluffy clouds (eternity?), as again and again a voice slurs, "Jesus' Blood
Never Failed Me Yet." One body dances alone in the lamp's beam (transience?),
while one by one her comrades disappear beneath the floor and the curtain descends.
(Editor's Note: To read more about
the work of William Forsythe, enter "Forsythe" in the search engine window on
our Home page. To read more reviews by Chris Dohse, enter "Dohse." )
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