'The Room As It Was', 'Duo,' '(N.N.N.N.),' 'One Flat Thing Reproduced'
by Toba Singer
June 5, 2004 – Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
The program closer, “One Flat Thing Reproduced,” opens with dancers pushing about 20 rectangular aluminum work tables downstage from behind. Up to that very moment, I had been imagining that this must have been a pretty low-budget program to tour. If all other expenses were sacrificed for the tables, it was a necessity whose virtue was self-evident. The piece is set around, across, under, in conflict with, and in spite of, the under-lit, random matrix of crashing, noisy, loathsome tables, that bring to mind the turnstiles in the New York City subway system-the ones we used to jump over if we didn’t have the fare - until some clever, hateful genius invented a jump-proof fence.
The dancers throw their bodies against these urban gridlines. When they stretch their hamstrings to the limits of their implacable resistance, you are prone to think: "The Ballet Barres of Buchenwald." This is a survival game elaborated through noise and sensory alienation, defined by what happens above or below the tables which just happen to be about waist high… The main thing to understand is that the movement impulses follow a kind of circuitry. When too much power surges, it simply shorts out, repeatedly fracturing the picture. It’s an arcade of urban life, and it makes you see what the German state didn’t like about William Forsythe. He teases out the excesses into some approximation of the fourth dimension where they assume a wild anima that becomes the guest you’re sorry you invited to the party.
The last piece is a kind of photo negative of the opener, “The Room As It Was.” A mostly music-less interlude, it shows men and women working their way toward each other, seeming to mark the piece by expelling their breath. There’s a sequence of male sparring among two and then three men, who help or hinder the relationship that’s hobbling through a series of poses. Then a woman joins them and they try the man/woman thing on for size. The piece begins to fall into its stride when two women pair more affably. A man then hangs on cloyingly as two woman lie around rotating their feet. A male dancer and one of the women are now “safe” to pair companionably. A stage left foursome becomes the pistons of an engine whose timing is unerring. These are like short conversations that falter at first and then achieve a tempo and velocity in which there is no discontinuity. She can’t get up onto pointe in one discreet roll of the foot? Who’s watching technique here? These dancers are all about moving and suddenly you have a perfect illustration of why that’s what really counts outside the studio and up on the stage.
“Duo,” reverses the previous value statement. It very much rests on technique. Neatness counts here, but in the service of something that taps into pure rapture. Costumed in transparent black tops, solid black briefs and sheer black tights, we see a thriving community of two dancers, who, though they never touch, appear to be riding a single wave from the start to finish of this piece. Those who get caught up in the puerile passtime of comparing and contrasting breasts, are perhaps missing something far more delectable: the languorous, and, dare I say it, more sensual backs that the dancers show. A sotto piano plays faintly in the background. It gently punctuates the undulations, intimate phrasing, versatile weight shifts, footfall full stops, and simple breathing that spirits the heavenly back stretches cased in delinquent black mesh. At once elastic and tensile, the women take their réverence as they are-no showily modest robes, just their sheathed, silky bodies and the genuine satisfied smiles that come when you manage to approach more than recede from perfection.
"(N.N.N.N.)" was the third piece and its premise was, according to the program, the engineering and reconfiguring of four parts of one body, each represented by a dancer. Your mind pictures male structural engineers gathered around a table, scratching their beards, cocking their heads to one side, thinking, “If it doesn’t work, just scrap it.” Well, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. When it works, it’s great; when it doesn’t, it gets into knee-slapping and body offenses and defenses and other snails and puppy dog' tails that, when I see them on TV on Super Bowl Sunday, send me running out of the room. It’s a long, hard piece. I found myself asking myself whether I would like to dance it. The answer was definitely N.N.N.No.
It is criminal that Ballett Frankfurt has been de-funded by the burgomeister of Frankfurt and his budget stripping cohorts, forcing William Forsythe to seek private support for his new company. As the film “Corporation” says rather directly, privatization of public institutions is a betrayal of the public trust and the patrimony of a nation. The film shows how six people died during massive demonstrations in Bolivia, protesting Bechtel Corporation assuming ownership of that country’s rainwater. At its heart, privatization of public property is among the most anti-patriotic of acts. What is so remarkable about European ballet is so very much a function of the state ballet system. Talented dancers are not fired owing to injury or union activism under some more sanguine pretext; artistic directors don’t serve at the pleasure of ignorant corporate moguls so much as appreciative, loyal audiences. Company continuity is respected through long-term contracts and benefits, so that we can enjoy watching dancers grow into a role over the years. The life of a company doesn’t depend on the kindness of strangers: To the contrary, a company such as Ballett Frankfurt (up until now) has been seen as the very cornerstone of the entire culture, and supported as such.
The Zellerbach audience rose to its feet, offering a long, hearty ovation for Mr. Forsythe and the dancers of Ballett Frankfurt. Und warum nicht?
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