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Flash Review, 10-16: Split decision
Deconstructed by Forsythe's "Decreation"

Dana Caspersen and members of the Forsythe Company in William Forsythe's "Decreation." Photo courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music.

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2009 Maura Nguyen Donohue

NEW YORK -- William Forsythe is an artist of our times, and in "Decreation" he reflects the multiplicity of our modern conversations -- the mediated, triangulated, frustrated efforts to commune with other like-minded souls in the multitasking mayhem that has become our daily lives. There were many moments as the piece unfolded that I resented the expansiveness of the Howard Gilman Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where the Forsythe Company performed "Decreation" on October 8, wanting to have a more intimate experience with a work that held various centers of focus.  Though only a few rows back in the orchestra, I still felt too much separation from the subtle shifts and ripples of the dancers as set against the onslaught of spoken text.

"Decreation" is a hard pill to swallow. Without the mythological grandeur of "Eidos:Telos," the thrilling, shadowy chaos of "Enemy in the Figure," the breakneck heartbreak of "Quintett," or the stunning convergence of violence, narrative, visual perspective and political statement in "Three Atmospheric Studies," it stands apart from my collected experiences of seeing Forsythe live.  It left me thwarted.  I'm used to experiencing awe and feeling challenged after seeing his work.  When I came across it in the repertory of other companies, I used to think he was a maniacal misogynist worse than Balanchine, forcing the female ballerina into even further into dehumanizing territory. But after 10 years of witnessing seminal works performed by his masterful troupe (be it under the name Frankfurt or Forsythe), I am not used to feeling so conflicted, so simultaneously enlivened and disappointed. Forsythe continues to remain at the helm of a shared voyage to explode out-dated notions about where the boundaries of dance lie.  He refuses to remain inside easily definable and recognizable categories and would not satisfy my nostalgic desires for his previous works.  I was fully ambivalent about "Decreation" immediately after I saw it;  now, after some time to reflect, I find my ambivalence might prove his success.  I was aggravated, sad, aroused, sympathetic, inspired, and generally ill at ease.  But even in the midst of my strongest "is this really, really good or just plain bad?" moments, I was never bored nor was I ever correct about what was coming next.

While the house lights remained up, the artists entered from the upstage right corner and crossed the stage to assume various starting positions around a stage full of askew chairs and microphones.  Dana Caspersen, longtime Frankfurt Ballet dancer and Forsythe's wife, began a quickly shifting, tweaked-out, verbal outburst about hypocrisy and compulsive sluts.  Richard Siegel, another former Frankfurter, crumpled at each joint, collapsing like a stubborn marionette as he began to speak as well.  We were assaulted with quick sonic bursts of high volume, followed by grey tones as a discordant dinner party ensued at an upstage table.  I began to think that, aside from Caspersen, there were too many mute females amidst several complaining men addressing one another via the strategically distanced microphones.  I mentally backed away from Anne Carson's text and read the argument in the bodies as different women wandered through the stage in the twisting and unsettled manner of many a Butoh dancer.  The articulation of the body became increasingly more compelling as the text washed over me like acid rain and I pondered the degeneration of a central nervous system.  The bodies decayed as the performers engaged in the endless bouts that are love's quarrels.  I could feel myself soaking in the icky round-after-round rehash sensation of an all-night argument.  The phrases "I hate this" and "This is very irritating" were delivered by the cast and spoke both to content and form, moving forward in a rematch and matching an indignation growing in the audience.  Then the commentary drew laughter from the audience and we became part of an endless feedback loop of repetition, accumulation and variation.

"Decreation" challenges even the most intrepid viewer with rapid shifts between seeming brilliance and elementary experimentalism.  As one woman stated to her friend on the steps of the theater, "It was like a Happening! And I didn't even like Happenings when they were happening."  Knowing that all of the choreographic project students from Hunter College, where I teach,  would be seeing this work, I kept considering how off-putting this particular piece could be to anyone unfamiliar with Forsythe's history and expansion.  Or with a history of the avant-garde; Futurists, Dadaists, the Living Theater and many of their counterparts had long ago established methods of harassing audience members with discordant, piercingly-loud sounds and violent, absurd images. So, this wasn't necessarily new, but what once upon a time could be seen as a rebellion against form now showed itself to be a rigorously designed system that had been intricately calculated and considered.  In other words, painstaking effort and incredible amounts of training and technical expertise were needed to effect haphazardness.  I decreed "Decreation" a carefully crafted illusion of disaster and chaos.

Richard Siegal and members of the Forsythe Company in William Forsythe's "Decreation." Photo courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music.

But, just in case I'd been drinking the Kool-aid for too long, I decided to eavesdrop on the HC choreographic projects class, a week later, as they shared their responses with one another. Round by round, here are are some of their comments:

"I've never been to a performance before where I've felt so many emotions at one time." Ding!

"I was annoyed with the repetition and cacophony; but I liked that it was so crazy and I couldn't focus anywhere." Ding!

"I felt all different emotions and it was consistently hard to focus; but I didn't want to blink in case I missed something." Ding!

"I cried four times. It was one of the most honest, harrowing, inspirational things I've ever witnessed.  I couldn't show a normal response and applaud at the end because I didn't have a normal experience." Ding!

"I was very frustrated throughout and yet entirely into it.  Time moved so quickly." Ding!

"It was the most brilliant theatrical production I've seen.  It was like a life created on stage.  This thing happens to all of us but he's such an amazing traffic cop -- the chairs, the camera, everyone moving everywhere.  He made an hour feel like five minutes." Ding! Ding! Ding!

And the winner is... William Forsythe, by split decision.

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