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Flash Review 2, 3-29: Art in Fact
William Forsythe's Sounds of Science

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

ANTWERP -- While the work is hardly new, William Forsythe's pivotal evening-length 1984 "Artifact," seen Tuesday at de Singel on Frankfurt Ballet and closing there tonight, touches on several fundamental questions hounding dance these days: What is it? What happens when choreographers add spoken word to the mix? How does one engage an audience? How does one attract a hip audience to the ballet? What is ballet? Where does dance fit in the broader aesthetic? When what is putatively a ballet, danced by a ballet company, resembles Cunningham more than Classical ballet, is there any point to categories within the field? When the declaiming in a putative ballet is so strongly interpreted by the actors that the work seems more drama than dance -- notwithstanding the facility of the dancers and the intricacy of the choreography -- should a ballet like "Artifact" even be critiqued as a dance? Or as a play that uses dance? And if it is theater, is a dance critic even equipped to evaluate the work, to know where it fits in the pantheon of theater, and whether it is a true original or simply derivative?

To take the next-to-last question first: There are certainly more dancers -- about 35 -- than actors in "Artifact." And the patterning is more involved than the spoken script, which consists of a handful of phrases repeated again and again. ("Step Inside," "Step Outside," "I remember everything," "I forget what I never" knew, "Can you see what I'm hearing?," "Shall we not say what we have seen and always never forget?", "Welcome to what you think you see.") Even if deceptively simple, these references may not come from nowhere. While an author does not seem to be credited in the program, my colleague Rosa Mei caught possible allusions to T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," such as in the oft-repeated references to rocks.

Normally when seeing dance with text, I don't think the text needs to be confined to its literal meaning, but can be experienced simply as the music for the dance. In "Artifact," though, Prue Lang's fairy-tale diction makes her one of the two most compelling single performers, the other being Forsythe muse Dana Caspersen. (A central, rather ponderous dancer-character chalked in white, portrayed by Agnes Noltenius, is simply an over-drawn dramatic device). So apart from the pure dance section in which Caspersen works her magic, it's hard to resist seeing this experience as a work of theater, first. (This is not to dis the rest of the dancers, who include Forsythe stalwart Allison Brown and the legendary Jodie Gates, but rather to say that their deployment on stage sometimes makes them seem secondary.) On the other hand, Forsythe's choreographic hand is so considered that the dance in "Artifact," if seen for instance in the context of a Broadway play, is much more than one is used to finding in "the theater." What we have then is two strong artistic elements. While they don't exactly clash, in only the third of the four acts do they meld as equals; in the first the dance is over-eclipsed, in what might be a Forsythe mind-fuck -- even moreso for a 1984 audience which didn't know what it was getting into with Forsythe, as we do. Lang repeats a few semi-sensical lines; while her mellifluous British-accented tones makes the experience more than tolerable, even pleasant, it's less easy to sit through the microphoned, flat, calling attention to its own theatre-ness droning of her partner, Nicholas Champion. On top of this, the dancing appears mostly in shadow, producing the frustration born of wanting to watch something -- this is William Forsythe choreographing, after all, on the extraordinary dancers of his home company! -- and not being able to see it. (A problem compounded by the dark lighting, also designed by Forsythe. I know, I know, it's artistic, but if you have to strain to see the performance, what's the point?!)

Part II merits more than a little discussion because it has been adapted in and of itself by ballet companies around the world. Having now seen it in the evening-length "Artifact," though, I'm perplexed as to why Forsythe has permitted a cast-truncated, principals-only version to be performed elsewhere. Or rather, as it's his to choose to do so or not, I'm perplexed as to what this might say about the integrity of the dance as a whole. Not integrity in the moral sense, but in the sense of how integral each piece is to the whole. If you saw "Artifact II" on Dance Galaxy at the Joyce a few seasons back, you know it as a dance of two couples. In fact, the entire corps of about 30 is involved in the enterprise, framing the couples. Of course a corps does more than frame -- it is part of the picture and even, in the hands of a Forsythe predecessor like Balanchine, it is the picture! Indeed, as seen Tuesday, at the end of this section, the dance-iest, the two couples return to the corps before marching off.

It's a choreographer's prerogative to give permission to a company to perform his dance in altered form, and of course understandable that a small ensemble like Dance Galaxy could not have amassed the personnel necessary for the original part II of "Artifact." But the choice is puzzling because Forsythe's architecture, while exquisite in the duet form, rocks on large groups, when various canons, of the whole and on individuals' bodies, are set a -twirlin'. It's a pageant really, and in some ways his maneuvers are more effective seen en masse because then it's easier, at least for a non-dancer looking for more than just inventive mechanics, to relate to the movement purely as science, geometry. It takes on the thrill of Busby Berkeley. This is when Forsythe most dazzles me. So why would he permit the performance of a version which excises the corps, signalling that it's not that essential after all?

Which is not to take anything away from the four principals in Artifact II Tuesday -- Amy Raymond, Fabrice Mazliah, Thierry Guiderdoni, and, most of all, the fiercely liquid Caspersen, who gives roundness to what is, after all, pretty angular choreography, with the woman constantly contracting into a sideways v as she holds both of her partner's hands and keeps her feet close to his. As my colleague Ms. Mei pointed out, her smooth sweeps were particularly strong, considering that this is not the typical strong point of a ballet dancer because of the specific muscles whose strength it depends upon. Yet Caspersen exercised them with easy grace.

Where the all blends best -- spoken word/theater and dance -- is the third part of "Artifact," a riot of declaiming, prop deconstructing, actor unravelling and dancer recoiling and otherwise responding. As Lang gets more and more wrought up about remembering, forgetting, who's on the outside, who's on the inside, the rocks, the dust, always the rocks, the dancers first cooperate, taking her instructions, for instance, to "step inside!" behind the sparely scrawled-on slabs in front of which they stand. But by the end of this section, they are trying to escape -- and deliciously so, as a tall female dancer in an oversized white t-shirt, her legs bared, tip-toes en pointe across the back of the stage towards the exit, making the shshshshs sign to her colleagues and beckoning them follow her ("If we go quietly, maybe the madwoman won't notice! This way!").

Notwithstanding that comic use of pointe, this is the section where the dancers are most modernly employed, both in the disjointed, Grenkian, warped, crippled way they move and simply in what they're wearing, mostly hobo chic for the men and variations on leotards for the women. By the end, rather too inevitably, Richard Siegel, Frankfurt Ballet's designated ranter, is going at full steam, to the point where a voiced-over director (Forsythe?) who's been giving directions throughout ("So and so, leave; now so and so, enter") shouts, as Siegel frantically pliets, "RIch, shut the fuck up!" before the curtain falls.

Everyone has calmed down, initially, for the finale, but it's really just a more controlled and mannered mania, as Lang, saying the same things, increases her tempo and volume in the type of amplification that suggests a supreme battle for self-control. The entire corps, making way before, around, and behind her as she paces and stomps, makes a more patterned response, arraying almost militarily in various lines ("Dancers, fall in!"), inflected occasionally by more individual, precise gestures, my favorite being the exquisitely timed arrangement in which all lay down upstage, heads to us, and one by one a dancer raises an arm on the left side of the line, another immediately responds on the right, the wonder being in the simplicity of the gesture. Musically here even the pianist, Margot Kazimirska playing the composition of Eva Crossman-Hecht, stops and starts as if also quaking, like the dancers, at Lang's every command. (I loved this interchange, this call and stop if you will, by the way -- the musician did not have even the option of being a passive collaborator. The same team provided the music for the first section, the second came from Bach as recorded by Nathan Milstein, and the third was a Forsythe-produced sound collage.)

As artifacts go, it would be interesting if our reactions as audiences (not just as critics) to William Forsythe's "Artifact" could also be recorded at the various epochs of auditing. One of the artifacts of most interest seems to be how we perceive a work that -- notwithstanding it's being designated a ballet and created on a ballet company by a ballet choreographer -- eludes definition. If we didn't know it was a ballet at the get, would we even call it this? Or would we call it a play with dance? An abstract painting acted out? A poem visualized? A fairy tale intellectualized? A madman or woman analyzed? A dream realized? An insane asylum artified?

By way of a mini-artifact along these lines:

--I as a critic experienced this dance as described in the above paragraph -- mentally stimulated most by what questions it raised about the art of performing. Besides the dancing of Caspersen, which always breathes fire and thus is always a joy to behold, and the locuting of Lang, "Artifact" struck my brain but didn't really stick in my heart. I don't know that it was moving in the same way that Pina Bausch, these days anyway, is able to move with her brand of multi-genre charming cacophony.

-- My dancer/choreographer/writer companion loved "Artifact" for the geometry and literary allusions, for starters.

-- My dancer/choreographer/writer companion's non-dancer companion, while not not crazy about it, was unmoved, most notably, by section two with its two duets. (While the dancer/choreographer found these exquisite, I'm in the middle even if somewhat elevated on the effectiveness of these duets. They are fascinating to watch, but, particularly if interpreted by a dancer without the warmth and joy of Casperson, would they actually resonate and move me? I'm not sure.) Our non-dancer friend did, however, like the third section -- the most cohesive dramatic and comedically. And the section that was about more than the science of dance, the one in which Lang, goaded by Champion, exploded, and the dialogue suddenly made theatrical if not entirely logical sense, while the dancers were given the choreography to respond. It was alive in the spirit, not just the head.

This is rather the unique quandary -- the problem, if you will -- that Forsythe has set up for himself: He is working geometrically, and philosophically, not with cold numbers or abstract words, but with warm-blooded bodies. Those bodies themselves are flexible and the dancers able even to neutralize themselves emotionally (by appearance, anyway) in service of the work, to become lean mean dancing machines. And maybe members of a certain, often pseudo-intellectual cultural elite are able to get off on dissecting the geometry as they are able to wax prolific on other types of abstract art, in a code that sometimes confounds the rest of us pedestrians. Music is math too, but it's still able to move. The father of mathematical ballet, Balanchine, connected so strongly to the music that even his non-narrative ballets move our hearts, especially when the dancers themselves are moved. I don't know that the ballets of William Forsythe -- at least what I've seen so far -- offer this kind of popular appeal. A nasty term, that -- and I hear you saying that it's not an artist's job, and should hardly be his or her ideal, to appeal to the masses. But the popular expectation of being moved by a dance comes from a pretty honest, basic place: We dance when we are moved. This is the connection that has somehow been missed, and that I think of whenever I hear someone say they just don't understand dance. What's to understand? It's the one art anyone can experience -- if not always at a high artistic level, at least at the visceral. So when a choreographer makes something so cold that even after a long section where two couples are pretty much touching their partners the entire time, some in the audience can still remain unmoved in their hearts, no matter how stimulated they are in their brains, I have to suggest, at least, that the dance of William Forsythe more often than not achieves a certain level of artistic provocation, choreographic breakthrough, and perhaps intellectual stimulation, but may fall short as dance -- not in terms of what dance means to dancers and critics, but to a large section of the public.

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