Forsythe at BAM: Whatever is the opposite of facile
The word “beautiful” does not cross your mind as you watch William Forsythe’s Sider—until the last five minutes. Odd, willful, fractured, yes. But his fascinating choices do not amount to any sort of harmony. So after those sometimes exasperating qualities, when you see lilting, feathery arm movements, you’re taken by surprise. You think, “Ahhh, that’s beautiful” and the thought continues as you watch till the end.
Each Forsythe piece that has come to the Brooklyn Academy of Music creates its own world with its own hidden rules. In this case the basic rule is the rhythm of an Elizabethan play, which the dancers hear through tiny headphones while they are performing. They are also, I learned at a talk with Forsythe at BAM, listening to his in-the-moment instructions on the headphones (mostly to slow down or speed up). But I didn’t know that or see that.
Frances Chiaverini (center) in Sider
Photo by Julieta Cervantes, Courtesy Bam
What I did see was a unique world made up of disparate elements. Some would regard this as a puzzle to “figure out.” But I tend to think, Who else would put big cardboard slats, medieval hoods, flickering fluorescent lights, a soft-to-ominous sound score, and 18 fabulous dancers together? No one but Forsythe, because he pushes the idea of coherence to the limit. Underneath, and under cover, Shakespeare has given it a skeletal structure.
The puzzle I do like to solve when watching a Forsythe ballet is to track the ways that it echoes past pieces.
In its hauling, heaving rambunctiousness, Sider is like Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, Reproduced. In that ballet, people scrambled through, over, and under 20 metal tables. The person-sized cardboard panels in Sider are about the same proportions as those table tops but have different properties. Both were loud when moved against the floor, but the corrugated cardboard flats are easier to lift and fall quietly.
Fabrice Mazliah in Sider
Photo by Julieta Cervantes, Courtesy BAM
The fluorescent lights in Sider that flicker off and on remind me of the stage curtain that repeatedly descends mid-ballet in Artifact Suite, rudely cutting off our view of the dancing. In Sider, some bulbs suddenly go dark while others stay on, so it’s as jarring as a blackout but you can still see the dancing—it’s just very dim until those lights go back on.
The crazed delivery of a monologue in two opposite voices, carried out here by David Kern in a pink skullcap (and sometimes an added Elizabethan ruff collar), is reminiscent of Dana Caspersen alternating wildly exaggerated male and female voices while reciting Anne Carson’s poetry in Decreation.
What is completely different is the character given to Frances Chiaverini. A curious, undaunted Alice in a bizarre wonderland of obessive actions, she drifts and skips through, looking above, below, and beyond for clues. At one point an ominous sound grows louder and louder, while everyone crashes their siders (it’s a carpentry term for a flat surface) around her. Chiaverini is beleaguered but never loses her innocence. At the talk on Saturday, Forsythe revealed that the secret Elizabethan play is Hamlet, and Chiaverini is playing Ophelia. Her element is water, which explains why she was more fluid than the others. (See a video of the fabulous Frances Chiaverini at our cover shoot here.)
From left: Brigel Gjoka, Ander Zabala, and David Kern
Photo by Julieta Cervantes, Courtesy BAM.
What’s different too is the embedded love story between Chiaverini and protagonist Fabrice Mazliah. While David Kern is babbling in uber-theatrical gibberish on both sides of a sider, these two stand very close with a slat in between, seemingly unaware of each other, both facing the audience. She is stretching her face and mouth in all directions while he snaps his fingers. Somehow that wall comes down and they sit talking amiably, finally receding behind the panel as though ready for a kiss. I figure they are Hamlet and Ophelia getting to know each other.
Thom Willem’s score sets a low steady pulsation against a high whistling sound. Occasionally a clacking clap is thrown into the works. The dancers do not hear Willem’s sounds. We do, and Forsythe does, while he “conducts” them from wherever he is stationed. When all these sounds empty out, the sudden silence creates another kind of drama.
Toward the end, all 18 dancers lineup to bang on their own panels, as though drumming. The banging turns into tapping and then into a lovely wavelike motion. Finally we can take a breath. (At the talk, Forsythe referred to this section as “the concert.” And the word in the script they are hearing is “beautiful”—the exact word that came into my mind!)
The players exit one by one, leaving the same three onstage who began the piece: Chiavarini quietly manipulating two siders, Mazliah elbowing himself along the floor, and Kern lingering upstage with his own cardboard rectangle. They freeze again, in a moment that recalls the freeze in the opening scene. We recapture our own memory. Lights out—and this time it’s all the lights. We are left with a sense of a brief and hard-earned beauty.
It's a cycle familiar to many: First, a striking image of a lithe, impossibly fit dancer executing a gravity-defying développé catches your eye on Instagram. You pause your scrolling to marvel, over and over again, at her textbook physique.
Inevitably, you take a moment to consider your own body, in comparison. Doubt and negative self-talk first creep, and then flood, in. "I'll never look like that," the voice inside your head whispers. You continue scrolling, but the image has done its dirty work—a gnawing sensation has taken hold, continually reminding you that your own body is inferior, less-than, unworthy.
It's no stretch to say that social media has a huge effect on body image. For dancers—most of whom already have a laser-focus on their appearance—the images they see on Instagram can seem to exacerbate ever-present issues. "Social media is just another trigger," says Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist who works with the dancers of Atlanta Ballet. "And dancers don't need another trigger." In the age of Photoshop and filters, how can dancers keep body dysmorphia at bay?
If "Fosse/Verdon" whet your appetite for the impeccable Gwen Verdon, then Merely Marvelous: The Dancing Genius of Gwen Verdon is the three-course meal you've been craving. The new documentary—available now on Amazon for rental or purchase—dives into the life of the Tony-winning performer and silver-screen star lauded for her charismatic dancing.
Though she's perhaps most well-known today as Bob Fosse's wife and muse, that's not even half of her story. For starters, she'd already won four Tonys before they wed, making her far more famous in the public eye than he was at that point in his career. That's just one of many surprising details we learned during last night's U.S. premiere of Merely Marvelous. Believe us: You're gonna love her even more once you get to know her. Here are eight lesser-known tidbits to get you started.
Every dancer knows that how you fuel your body affects how you feel in the studio. Of course, while breakfast is no more magical than any other meal (despite the enduring myth that it's the most important one of the day), showing up to class hangry is a recipe for unproductive studio time.
So what do your favorite dancers eat in the morning to set themselves up for a busy rehearsal or performance day?
When it comes to dance in the U.S., companies in the South often find themselves overlooked—sometimes even by the presenters in their own backyard. That's where South Arts comes in. This year, the regional nonprofit launched Momentum, an initiative that will provide professional development, mentorship, touring grants and residencies to five Southern dance companies.