The Forsythe Company
Making his second swing through the United States since forming his new troupe two years ago, William Forsythe succeeds at something incredibly rare in the contemporary dance world: He leaves us wanting more.
Now based in both Frankfurt and Dresden, his 16 dancers in Three Atmospheric Studies grapple with the war that has destroyed America’s credibility worldwide. In three vignettes, each of which ends before we can fully take it in, they first skirmish, barefoot or in socks, enacting the battles and encounters with explosives that are daily facts of life in Iraq. The movement appears derived from news film and photos. The huge bare stage seems at first to hold a game, but the affect is wrong for recreation; clearly the matter here is life and death.
Sure enough, after stagehands replace the pale Marley with a dark floor, the scene is layered. At the front, a bereaved woman attempts to file a complaint with a bureaucrat, who, sitting on the opposite side of the stage, keeps recasting her words into new idioms, maybe even a different language. Meanwhile a younger man takes the opportunity to give a kind of art history lecture, turning her words into abstract movement, measuring them along strings that create “perspective.” The three pursue their own agendas. Little is accomplished. The woman winds up almost nose to nose with the “translator,” yelling “I do not understand.”
After an almost unnecessary intermission, during which the scenery is changed and performers keep talking in full view of the audience, dancers tumble out of a structure made of plywood flats, engaging in martial-arts-style combat while one guy makes howling sounds into a microphone. The walls are amplified, and dancers crash into them with explosive sounds.
Suddenly the noise stops and the lights come up. The same “art historian” from the second “study” becomes a guide to the bombed city, pointing out atrocities as though they were tourist attractions. “Here’s a ring…with a finger still in it,” he intones, attempting to aestheticize the war. An official of some kind—a slight, blond woman (Dana Casperson) whose voice is manipulated electronically to sound like a Texan man—arrives to take command. “Ma’am,” s/he says, addressing the bereaved mother who sits, collapsed, against one of the walls, “you need to understand that this is not personal. Your point of view is not interesting to me.”
“Trust me on this,” the unctuous voice continues. “We are offering you structure.” A pair of dancers does what look like Pilates exercises while the speaker drones on. “We’re just cleaning this up, and you can’t fault us for that.” This speech is pitch-perfect, capturing the double-speak with which the U.S. government has kept the war going for years, searing the hopelessness and haplessness of the situation into the consciousness of the viewer. Suddenly the stage goes dark; nothing is resolved, but Forsythe has undeniably brought the war home.
A couple of days later, as part of Toni Morrison’s four-day “Art is Otherwise” festival at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in Manhattan, Forsythe offers another, smaller, but almost equally powerful work, You Made Me a Monster. Inspired by the inappropriate gift of a “skeleton kit” to his wife as she lay dying of cancer, it’s an improvisation that engages the audience in helping to construct the “skeleton” on tables in a large studio. As we work, three dancers appear as if from nowhere, taking movement inspiration from the shapes we’ve made in the air and their shadows projected on the tables and the walls. Concealed microphones turn their actions and murmurings into loud sounds. Meanwhile a text by Forsythe, documenting his wife’s illness and his conviction that xenophobia, the fear of foreigners, works like a cancer in the social fabric, scrolls by on a screen at one end the room. The dancers wind up at that end. The model he built from the kit—like the model we have contributed to, as we stand in the studio—is, he declares, “a model of grief.”
Forsythe expands the boundaries of what art can be for, and about. “Literature,” he told a packed crowd at a discussion before performances of Monster, “is choreography; it’s a time-based medium.” His mission, he says, is no less than to “re-orient the practice of classical ballet.” The city seems smaller since he and his gifted ensemble have returned to Europe. Watch him; he is the future.