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Flash Review 2, 11-19: Etch A Sketch in Streamlined Indigo
Forsythe's "Ricercar" = One Confused Room

By Rosa Mei
Copyright 2003 Rosa Mei

FRANKFURT -- No one could accuse William Forsythe of being simple. Even his detractors don't often question his curiosity. Most just seem to object the 110-decibel screechings in his work or find his blatantly obtuse theorizing -- eidos/telos, et al -- annoying. A movement linguist at heart, Forsythe plays with dance syntax and microaesthetic locomotion to the nth degree. No small surprise he's a fan of "Finnegan's Wake," by James Joyce. "Finnegan's Wake" in a nutshell? A paranoiac search for meaning and encyclopedic phantasmagoria of signifiers in the post-modern age. You could pretty much say the same thing about "Ricercar," Forsythe's new 17-minute paradoxical bundle, which premiered last week at Frankfurt's Opernhaus am Willy-Brandt-Platz. A compendium of 20th-century dance -- a little Mr. B neoclassicism here, a little Pina pedestrian gesture there, with some yoga poses thrown in for good measure -- "Ricercar," seen Saturday, is a bit scattered and incoherent. But simple? Definitely not.

Ricercar, from Merriam-Webster: any of various keyboard musical forms of the 16th and 17th centuries in either quasi-improvisatory toccata style or strict polyphonic fugal style.

Ricercar, from the Italian word ricercare: to seek again, seek out.

"Ricercar," as defined by William Forsythe, 2003: a formal investigation, two couples (man/woman, man/woman) in indigo ballet 'tards pretzeling arms to Bach's plunky "Varationen uber Ricercar a 6'," played, in Saturday's performance, by David Morrow on a grand piano downstage left. The dancers squeegee their limbs across imaginary planes and make double jointed meandering look like a walk in the park. Plyometric pyrotechnics a la Forsythe.

The piece begins with formal ballet counterpoint, clean Cechetti lines, textbook 4th positions and attitude turns. The formalism, enhanced by the dancers' finely tapered limbs and prehensile feet, quickly dissolves into pigeon-toed skitters across the stage. Allison Brown's legs ricochet off Fabrice Mazliah's forearm to initiate a complex coiling pattern. Dana Caspersen assumes various yoga poses and sickles her feet while Christopher Roman does etch-a-sketch with his head, shoulder, elbows and hips. Their bodies converge and diverge in intervals, negotiating nodes in space.

These two dancers showcase Forsythian prowess with a special sort of elan. Caspersen, that spitfire wonder, carves three-dimensional space like buttah. An uber-technician with fast-twitch muscle to burn, she's small and power-packed. And with that ooh lah lah ooze seeping from her pores, you see why she's a star. Roman, another diamond dancer, has that quicksilver clarity that Forsythe shows in his own dancing. Hyper-articulate and fleet of foot, Roman pulls his opposing body parts like taffy, while leaving crisp afterimages of hip swizzles and elbow doodles. It's the kind of pristine precision you can't train; some folks just have the gene.

Unfortunately, in "Ricercar," Forsythe's intricate movement combinations (the u-lines, o-transformative operations, reverse temporal orders and adjectival modifications of spacial recovery*...phew!) almost overpower the overarching architecture of the piece. "Ricercar" displays the choreographer's genius for endless movement invention, but somehow, on a macroscopic level, his chunks of visual information seem haphazardly glued together. A dash of Mr. B (think "Agon" redux), some Pina shoulder shrugs, plus some sickle-footed non-sequiturs for flavor. The piece as a whole seems to lack the through line that so often defines the movement phrases themselves. Seems odd, since Forsythe is someone obsessed with structure; yet here, he doesn't balance his micro and macro. In "Ricercar," Forsythe comes across as a master mangler of body parts but only an adept architect.

A similarly structured piece, last year's "The Room as It Was," seen on this same program and reviewed here previously by my colleague Gus Solomons jr, has a certain improvised magic that "Ricercar" lacks. The dancers in rehearsal clothes and the workshop feel of "The Room" highlight Forsythe's open-ended structure. We can focus on the endless coiling, the clever slicing and dicing of space. Maybe "Ricercar" would read better without the foil wrapping -- the chignons, the indigo ballet wear and grand piano. It's like everyone got duded up to go to Chez Panisse and the local greasy spoon both on the same night.

But perhaps this isn't Forsythe's concern. In a 1999 interview with Nik Haffner*, Forsythe described his creative process as follows: "At any given moment you have to be able to say : What is the potential of this configuration of my body. And at one point, I guess a long way down the line, you know intuitively what it is. And then I would suggest you try the results of that which you don't know, move from there, with no idea how it's going to turn out. For me, that would be a truly successful dance, because then the body would take over and dance at that point where you had no more idea. I see that as an idealized form of dancing; just not knowing and letting the body dance you around." Signifiers in a postmodern age, indeed.

*From "William Forsythe Improvisation Technologies: A Tool for the Analytical Dance Eye." (A must-have CD-ROM for all dancers, choreographers and Forsythe fans -- for more information, click here.)

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