Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Forsythe Saga

“...the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight....”
Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

I like to think of William Forsythe this way: he’s the choreographer who took the neoclassical baton from Balanchine, discovered its value as a social weapon, and then sprinted in a fast pair of Nikes into the 21st century yelling “revolt.” What else would a self-respecting American leftist baby boomer choreographer from Long Island do?

At the beginning of his career Forsythe danced with the Joffrey Ballet, then found his way to the Stuggart Ballet in Germany, eventually gravitating to and upending the Frankfurt Ballet, which he cast as an incendiary neoclassical company unafraid of blaring music, glaring colors and dance positions that had more to do with assembly lines and S & M chambers than palaces and opera houses.

Thanks to a willingness to take apart and remake ballet vocabulary in a way that smashed the traditional hierarchies of head, torso, legs, Forsythe has had more in common with modern dance experimenters than most ballet reformers. He’s also somebody who could moonlight as a lecturer in neoMarxist philosophy if he needed extra cash. In fact, over the years, reading his program notes has been sometimes like a slog through an especially opaque article in the journal Telos, and it has always been a relief when the dancing superceded the ideas they were meant to embody. But even when his intellectual bent leads to tendentious art, Forsythe deserves great credit for thinking philosophically and politically in an art form that, quite honestly, prefers its ideas to be decorous, or at least unobtrusive, and can punish those who get too brainy, too spiritual or too political while exalting those whose ideas are downright flimsy.

All the same, “Three Atmospheric Studies,” a political cri de coeur against the war in Iraq, was a stark reminder that the choreographer can be so driven by abstract ideas that he’s undone by them. Here he seemed to lose faith in the fact that the best dance is a physicalization of feeling-thought, not just thought, and that it has to be kinesthetically absorbed by the viewer’s body not merely her brain. Literature, decor and sound can be added to the mix, or a heady problem posed and solved. It can be brainy and even difficult. But in the finest dance--and Forsythe has authored plenty of fine dances--movement itself transmits the dna of that which needs to be communicated. In “Studies,” which premiered in the U.S. at Cal Performances in February with the new Forsythe Ballet, Forsythe got the dance’s dna confused with dna of a class on French and German social theory.

Forsythe designed “Studies” as a triptych inspired by two early Renaissance paintings,“Crucifixion” (1538) by Lucas Cranach the Younger, “Lamentation Beneath the Cross” (1503) by Lucas Cranach the Elder, and a photo of a boy being carried by soldiers following a car bombing in Iraq. The first two panels share the title “Clouds after Cranach,” referring to the ominous formations behind the crucified Christ, although clouds are equally apt for section three (called, simply, Study III) where truth is clouded by imperial propaganda and a whole lot of deafening noise.

While each of the three panels can stand on its own, put together, read left to right and then backward in time, right to left, they form a fragmented portrait of innocence in the clutches of chaos and power. Linked by a filament of a plot, “Atmospheric Studies” tells a fractured tale of a melee on a city street. That is followed by a mother’s efforts to secure the truth of events about her son, the elusiveness of truth, and an imperium’s nihilistic drive to swathe truth in good-old-boy Newspeak.

Sinuously danced by 12 unflagging dancers, Composition One occurs in a stark, almost antiseptic atmosphere, punctuated by brash overhead lights, a white floor, and a vast black backdrop. Dancer Jone San Martin steps forward. She is wearing a sleeveless pink fitted dress that looks lifted from the 60s, and speaks to the audience like a narrator out of a morality tale, announcing what has already taken place, will take place again, and perhaps will always take place: “This is Composition One, in which my son was arrested.” Her “son” is a dancer in red, and we are alert to watch him as the controlled chaos begins.

The gorgeous group starts running and falling to the sound only of of their ever-quickening breathing and dashing footfalls, and all are decked out in khakis and bright tee shirts. Sliding, careering, stopping short, wrenching their arms behind them, they fly across the stage this way and that, falling into painterly groupings of elastic, momentarily frozen tableaus, repeating the patterns in mirror image, going at it again at new angles. They run from attackers, look at the sky, point, dodge, fall and cower.

Sounds good, but there was a problem: while it looked like a virtuosic contact improv summit, it had none of the intrinsic danger and surprise of improv. That's because Forsythe’s molten movement appeared carefully choreographed and safely stylized; it also had a story to communicate (innocent people accidentally trapped by armed forces in a street) and an almost agit prop impulse in telling it. By contrast, the stream of consciousness of contact improv and its unknowable flow drives it to be deeply sensual, intuitive, as well as analytical, like jazz. Real improvisation would have injected a level of risk into this piece that was sorely missing.

Perhaps had the dancers been costumed in a babel of clothes styles--head scarves, khameez, jeans, ties--the segment might have read differently and better. But dressed as they were in ordinary Western youth street garb, no terror in sight, the scenario accumulated a disturbing recherche quality--college kids at the barricades in Paris ‘68, or a 1981 demonstration against the war in El Salvador. In an interview, Forsythe said he turned for inspiration to Cranach’s own insertion of Renaissance German elements, like clothes, into the first century Passion drama. But Cranach interpolates competing visual realities that give the composition multiple layers of meaning; Forsythe offers only one.

More critically, Forsythe failed his own challenge. The Cranach paintings communicate the quiet, timeless despair of an iconic mother, the gruesomeness of the archetypal innocent’s murder by the state, and an air of fury in nature itself. Yet Forsythe offered us no comparable experience of awe and terror. The movement in Composition One was too fluid and the impulses too controlled to capture the mystery of large forces or the true brutishness of violence. So, before long, death became little more than the negative and fairly inert space around the movers. And it was this inability to represent death in any palpable awe-inspiring way that gave this segment a disembodied quality. Ironically, it is, in large measure, the perils of disembodiment that are at the heart of his critique of our society and the war.

That made it especially interesting that, in the fiercely cerebral Composition Two, we actually got a brief taste of death’s ice and heat. Rendered as theater, with only the most minimal movement, the composition was built around two primary figures, dancer San Martin, the mother of the missing child, and Amancio Gonzalez, the official to whom she’s gone to locate her son. A third and shadowy figure, the long-limbed David Kern, hung around the periphery like an annoying academic, describing and analyzing the mechanics of the compositions--lines of sight (literalized as white rope lines converging in a single point in the background) and events from competing perspectives. Although Forsythe used him as a cool foil, he was a walking embodiment of how reductive and tedious cold-blooded analysis is.

San Martin anxiously sat in a chair in the same snug dress as before the investigation got underway. She said such phrases as “my son was arrested,” “in the street,” and the official, a careful man at a long table, searched like a writer or a philosopher for the comparable phrase in Arabic, reshaping her words or correcting her misperceptions in order to make one reality and language fit the dictates of another. He was digging for a common truth. He was also establishing control.

As information tediously accumulated, and the perspectives of the melee grew like Rashomon's tale, the officer finally informed her--and us--that the boy has not been apprehended and jailed, as the mother assumed; he’s been inadvertently killed. At this point, the heartless facticity of truth shot forth, and Forsythe drove home to the audience a small nail of shock and sorrow. San Martin soon liquified before our eyes, her body twisting inward, her words becoming disfigured as she tried madly and vainly to reassert her assumptions about Composition One. Truth seeking descended into ambiguity. Was the death an accident? Was he really dead? Within the tight confines of these terms, Forsythe played with meaning and reality like a cat pawing a mouse, and he tackled complexity quite gamely.

But as meaty as this interlude was, it added up to a brainy exercise about war as the relation of power to the control of symbolic systems, communication as “translation” and “translation” as a form of power, since those who control the means of communication are believed to be those in power. Rather than leading us into an arena beyond political theory, where the subject would be human experience in the face of war, he kept us, albeit nimbly, in the lecture hall.

Study III made matters worse. Here the lines of perspective from part two materialized into a solid, obliquely angled structure. A devasted San Martin slumped in a chair along its southern side, while to the northeast, facing us, hung photos of clouds that Kern attempted to analyze, like an intelligence officer scouring incidentals in the hope of snagging some important bit of data. He soon moved on to cold-blooded list making--where and what body parts he could find scattered around the bomb scene--a finger here, a limb there. Dancers, meanwhile, flew through a door in the building and smashed into the walls with a mix of fecklessness and symbolic heft. Was the structure the imperial intrusion of the U.S.? Jesus’ tomb? Or, more simply, the obdurate and impenetrable character of events? Noise filled the theater (sound score by Thom Willams). One dancer created cacaphonous noise by breathing into a microphone. I put tissue in my ears.

Then the work slipped into agit prop. A Texas-twanging good old boy (think George Bush), locked in the body of tiny blonde Dana Casperson, oozed good-buddy Newspeak through a voice-altering transmitter, like Laurie Anderson on a right-wing bender. “Ma’am,” s/he drawled not unkindly to San Martin, the word fanning out into three syllables, “there’s no cause for alarm.” Orwellian platitudes washed over us like magnolia-scented sludge. Pontius Pilate was probably never quite so unctuous, but the parallels to Rome in Judaea, circa 26 BCE, screamed out. (Pilate thought he was a nice guy, too.). But Forsythe ultimately minimized the enormity of the global crisis by battering us with the particular tics of this empire. He needed to go further, deeper. He didn’t, or couldn’t.

Not even the last gesture read cleanly. Forsythe’s Mary, San Martin, was reduced by events to a Petrouchka-like puppet and led downstage by Kern, who then held her head in his lap, inverting the historic depiction of the Virgin Mary, who embraces her son with exquisite anguished tenderness in Michaelangelo’s Pieta. Interestingly, “pieta” refers to a practice that derived from the Roman Empire in the years after the crucifixion, referring to the act of prostrating oneself with emotion, love and great fear before the Roman gods. Imagine an Iraqi mother--any mother, for that matter--allowing herself to be prostrated before the forces that killed her son? The State is not that powerful. Nor is it eternal. And by reducing the mother figure to a position of total collapse, Forsythe obliterates one last opportunity to show the endless capacity of the human spirit to resurrect itself in the face of even the most heinous atrocities. And in that way, our deepest truths fell prey to grimly narrow political notions in “Three Atmospheric Studies.”

Pitching Hay

Friday March 30
ODC Theater, San Francisco

Deborah Hay is a hard one to catch. Years ago, she used to roll into town, often in the summer, and have a quiet interlude at Dancers Group/Footwork. She’d offer a workshop. Give a performance. And slip away. Appropriate to a performer whose work took the A out of art and reclaimed the exalted in the ordinary, she didn’t advertise much, if at all, as though you had to be drawn to her by rumor, magnetism or chance. I’d see a flyer, contemplate the moment, then I’d miss her, and each time I felt regret. I’d seen a couple of her group pieces, but long wondered what other kind of treasure this choreographer-Zen-naturalist might conjure. Now I know.

Hay hails from Brooklyn, and she eventually crossed the bridge to Manhattan and trained with James Waring, Merce Cunningham and Mia Slavenska. She performed with the Cunningham Company in 1964 when that small band of gypsies traveled through Europe and Asia. Then, as part of Judson, she became one of the juggernauts that broke out from the Cage/Cunningham experiments and further exploded the rules of modern dance. Hay is the one most renowned for breaking down the barriers between trained and untrained performers. She migrated to Vermont, then eventually to Austin, Texas, taking an approach to dance that had a conceptual as well as Zen bent—long, deep projects culminating in performance with or without an audience. From these she turned to solo work designed in collaboration with highly trained dancers. That’s where Friday night comes in.

She named the piece “Mountain” and set it on three superb dancers from Seattle, who worked with Hay over a period of a month in Bellingham, Washington: Peggy Piacenza, Gaelen Hanson and Amelia Reeber. The mountain that inspired Hay was Mt. Rainier, which, if you’ve ever flown the Northwest corridor, rises up out of the Cascade Volcano Belt with a majesty and vehemence that is almost shocking. That specific geological formation, however, was not literally the subject or point of the piece; it was the hidden life and ever-changing nature of a mountain that grabbed her.

But the idea of a mountain was just the starting point. The dance destination, half of it choreographed by Hay, the other half crafted as three solos created by each dancer from material performed in the first half, suggested all sorts of mountain-like qualities—triangular, difficult, enigmatic, weird and powerfully constructed. Put forbidding in there, too. I realized as I watched the intrigue going on in the gallery space that it had been a long time since I’d seen dance that forced the imagination open so whimsically and boldly. It was movement that defied, again and again, easy reduction, like texts by Gertrude Stein or an early Bruce Nauman video. Yet, as far as I was aware, only two people left the theater, and even they hung in most of the way.

Leaving childhood is, in part, to forget how strange existence is. Yet, from the moment the three dancers appeared bedecked in cottony stuff—poodle-like on the ankles of one, running like a raccoon tail or Mohawk on another, like stray fluff on the head of a third—it was clear that Hay not only hasn’t forgotten but is driven to plumb that strangeness. “Mountain” began with layers of wacky Northwest echoes of pioneers and Native Americans, trailer trash and call girls. The trio, each distinct and exquisitely expressive, performed non-virtuosic movements with enormous virtuosity, moving together but intensely apart so that the space they occupied seemed to grow denser by their presence. It’s hard to say what they did--they zipped, turned, squiggled, fell. One who wore a conical cap with the cottony stuff on top, like a zany princess, said “Quit” and fell to the floor. At times they used props--small hand bells, a tambourine, rattles. But they were employed with such unexpected flourish that it was slapstick and dreamy both.

Amelia Reeber I think it was muttered words with a grizzled intensity-- “… rip, thrash, hack, thrash”--like you’d imagine a small, wizened forest creature growling, or a child inventing the utterances of a frog that had watched Lewis and Clark scouting the woods. Whatever they said, because of the dislocated aspect of their sounds, assumed gnomic import. And then, while the eye rested on a familiar fourth position placement, the mind took in something deeper--an existential position, a place of rest and beauty that seemed only accidentally related to ballet.

The solo portion upped the ante and washed over us like three beautiful arias performed in a lost language, each weird, stunning and evocative, whether it was Amelia Reeber’s with her fire backdrop and cotton-covered skateboard, Peggy Piancenza’s Brunhilda/Sacagawea, or Gaelan Hanson’s exquisite boho Indian/cowgirl, which she performed with flawless integrity and physical grace. It made me think of kids making a divine cake with nothing but a bit of dust and endless honesty.