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London Calling, 5-14: Interactive Billy
Sadler's Wells & friends throw a city-wide party for Forsythe's 60th

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2009 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- For William Forsythe's London season, a city-wide celebration of the Frankfurt-based American choreographer's 60th birthday dubbed Focus on Forsythe, the favored format was dance installation, with most of his work being presented in art galleries in central locations on both sides of the River Thames. Through the inventive programing, presented variously by Sadler's Wells, Tate Modern, and the Midland Goods Shed, conventional barriers between audience and performer were ripped down, with Forsythe asking the spectator to experience dance in a refreshingly different way which eliminated passivity and inspired activity. Even the stage in the Sadler's Wells theater was transformed into an open studio where audience members and performers rubbed shoulders.

I encountered the multi-media installation "City of Abstracts" in the mezzanine of Sadler's Wells on April 21, before it moved to Fabric, a former night club, and then on to the Tate Modern. "City of Abstracts" consists of a camera attached to a wall which catches passers-by and projects their images onto a screen, but twists and distorts them in the process. As you encounter your image you naturally want to create a variety of movements to see what bizarre shapes the camera will feed back, so before you know it you are dancing flat out in front of the screen. If you change levels by crouching down or stretching up, or move backwards or forwards, your image appears to liquify and elongate as it flits across the screen. When I took my kids to see it they were deeply amused by seeing their images transform into liquid spooks or genies escaping from a bottle. It's more fun than serious, like an inventive "hall of mirrors," but what's great about "City of Abstracts" is that it gets everyone moving.

After playtime on the mezzanine I joined a select group of audience members who a guide ushered onto the theater stage for "You Made Me a Monster." I felt privileged to be walking on the vast stage of Sadler's Wells, with its rich legacy of dance, but which had now been transformed into a dimly lit art studio.

Some ten tables occupy the space on which are assembled the debris of DIY (Do It Yourself) cardboard models, pencils and sheets of paper. As we are led to one of the tables, with three dancers mingling at first unobtrusively among us, I see that it's a model of a cardboard skeleton, consisting of many parts stuck together intricately but not in any order. We are encouraged to add to the existing model, sticking cardboard bones, ribs, clavicles, fingers, and toes wherever we can without knocking over the precarious creation. Another task which we are encouraged to fulfill is to pencil in the shadows being cast by the overhead lighting shining through the latticed cardboard of the models. Our diagrams etched on pieces of paper then form part of a movement score for the dancers. A screen positioned at the downstage end of the stage separates us from the empty auditorium. Onto the screen are projected live images of us mingling with the dancers, interlaced with pre-recorded images of them and a tragically powerful text. Written by Forsythe, it recounts the cancer story of his wife, former San Francisco Ballet dancer Tracy Kai-Meier; her constant bleeding, her passionate dancing, the negligence of doctors, her rapid decline, her bending spine and finally her death. It also describes the rehearsals for a piece based on xenophobia in which the dancers researched how the fear of one's own body being invaded and consumed by a foreign body was felt by people who were xenophobic. Finally, he recounts how shortly before his wife's death, a friend gave her a life-sized model of a human skeleton -- which, many years after her death, Forsythe assembled without following the instructions. He dubbed this jumbled array of cardboard bones his "model of grief."

While we are participating in the various projects onstage, the dancers suddenly start performing, standing next to us and invading our space (or maybe we are invading theirs). David Kern, Roberta Mosca and Alessio Silvestrin slowly deconstruct what seems like every single dance step imaginable in a highly sophisticated physical language of distortion, disruption and fragmentation. They move individually through the crowded stage, around each table, with deformed limbs and twisted faces, making primeval noises, responding to the models. They represent everything that a paranoid society fears: monsters from Sci-Fi horror movies, crazy possessed souls, severely disabled people, anything but the 'normal' body beautiful. Their performance is hard-hitting because of their proximity to us, but also because of the vitality being generated by their bodies. Aesthetically the movements fluctuate from the grotesque and chaotic to the staggeringly graceful and precise. Fluid articulation by the dancers means that every action is explored to its extremity, unpicked then reassembled, dismissing the traditional hierarchies that exist in dance. This investigation of so many physical possibilities forged with unsentimental emotional content portrays Forsythe's work at its best.

The Forsythe Company in William Forsythe's "Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time." Dominik Mentzos photo copyright Dominik Mentzos and courtesy Sadler's Wells.

"Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time," seen April 30, situates 16 dancers in a maze of hanging pendulums installed within the cavernous space of the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall. They must find ways of travelling through the gently swaying metallic forest and negotiate with the hanging obstacles. Using their imagination and spatial awareness, they carry out endless experiments, providing personal solutions and responses to the installation. It's like watching a scientific experiment, as the performers lose themselves and rediscover themselves, thinking aloud and improvising: considering, for example, how to let go of momentum but sustain energy, or what actions will enable them to pass over the vast expanse of floor without colliding with the pendulums. The intensity of the piece, created by both the visual environment and Thom Willems's ambient score, mesmerizes the audience, and while people are free to move round the installation, most of us sit glued to one place. Set over a duration of two hours, "Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time" subtly changes as the natural light filtering through the large skylights begins to fade, and overhead lighting illuminates the wires of the pendulums. Viewed from one end of the hall, they look like the strands of a huge spider's web, which both confine and liberate the dancers, pushing them to create innovative material.

The final Forsythe work, which I attended May 1, was an installation, this time without dancers, entitled "Scattered Crowd." The novelty and appeal of "Scattered Crowd" was partly due to the space, a gigantic disused storage room known as the Midland Goods Shed, and the 10,000 white helium filled balloons that temporarily inhabited it. Situated close to King's Cross Station and the St. Pancras International Eurostar station on the second floor of a semi-derelict building, the shed contained a variety of merchandise in its former life and had probably never housed such delicate and ethereal goods as these balloons. As you walk through the dense but floating mass of white, the balloons bob and weave around you, some sitting on the ground, some at waist level and the rest clinging to the roof, for as long as the helium inside them holds out. They are unfettered and free to move wherever the breeze takes them. While initially I feel claustrophobic on entering the space and seeing this cloud-like expanse before me, as I pass through it I begin to experience a Zen-like calm. It helps that the balloons are fantastically light and move out of your path. Rather than being obstacles, they are more like mischievous but benevolent spirits. Here space, matter and architecture are examined by Forsythe as rigorously as he interrogates the physical body and this time the viewers become his performers.

For me, and many others, Focus on Forsythe was one of the most successful and rewarding programs seen here in the past year. In addition to Forsythe and his performers, credit should also be heaped on Alistair Spalding, artistic director of Sadler's Wells -- the over-all coordinator of the festival -- and the event producer, Emma Gladstone, for bringing this work to London and finding such brilliant off-site venues.

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