'The Room As It Was', 'Duo,' '(N.N.N.N.),' 'One Flat Thing Reproduced'
Lessons in seeing
by Andre Yew
June 12, 2004 – Segerstrom Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, Costa Mesa, Californa
Have you ever had one of those days where you wander into your favorite candy store only to find that it's a front for your local dentist? Instead of finding marzipan and sugar plums, you get to meet the endodontic probe and his gang of picks and drills. No? Neither have I, but I can't imagine this past weekend's performances by Ballett Frankfurt to be less than such an experience.
In her pre-performance talk, Ballett Frankfurt dramaturge Rebecca Groves cast William Forsythe's choreography as a lesson in seeing for the audience. Forsythe wants us to see the unnameable things in everyday life, she offered, and has explicitly and implicitly put such things into his choreography. Like many unexpected lessons, the experience in the moment can be bitter, but, in retrospect, we are glad and relieved that we've been through it.
With 4 pieces forming a conceptual arc that is spare in all details except for the lushly crafted physical movement, the works bristle with a mechanical, calculating intelligence. Despite their shaggy facade, in contrast to classical ballet's highly delineated, articulated, enunciated look, for example, the works are very carefully crafted, which is made especially obvious by their deliberate deconstruction of classical ballet. The costumes, with the exception of one piece on the program, are spare: as opposed to Balanchine's stylized, theatrical practice clothes costumes, Forsythe's look like real practice clothes, with their random assortment of mismatched colors and different styles. They're missing only the wear and tear of everyday clothes. The music is basically non-existent, and serves mostly to reinforce certain physical moments, but otherwise staying mostly unobtrusively in the background, by both its softness and its monotone composition and textures.
The first piece of the program, “The Room As It Was,” is sort of an introduction or overture for the rest of the program. With 8 dancers exploring physical interactions to be seen and expanded later in the program, we get to see a compressed, dense summary of the program. With their footfalls and breath sounds serving as the only audio cues throughout, we given a little salve at the end as some music finally relieves the intense atmosphere right before the curtain falls.
In contrast to the rest of the program, the second piece, “Duo,” is the most outwardly constructed, with the two women dancers wearing matching black, sheer leotards, as opposed to the loose, colorful, unmatched practice clothes of the other 3 pieces. They begin in silence, alternately dancing in unison and reacting to the other, with highly constructed, formal poses and movements. The climax comes as music joins the two dancers, and illuminate their choreography: suddenly, what they're doing makes sense, and one could grasp the structure and logic behind the choreography. As if to test the student, in denouement, the music goes away, while the women are still dancing. But now we can grasp the movement, and it becomes something more than just abstract movement as we can still see its beauty without the crutch of music helping us along.
Testing us further comes the third piece, “(N.N.N.N.),” made for a quartet of four men. The choreography has become more complicated with more dancers, and there's no music to bail us out this time. The men do more physically reactive movements, some of which look like martial arts moves intentionally blurred and made sloppy. They perform their moves in solo, and together, exploring their interaction with one another in different numbers. Resembling a kind of high-brow slapstick at times, the men seem to cajole each other into ever more intensive and faster combinations. With blurred echoes of classical formations, like line weaving (think Balanchine) or group movement (think of the 4 cygnets), this piece leaves me scratching my head.
The last piece, “One Flat Thing Reproduced,” challenges us with the largest number of dancers (14), many dangerous-looking, sharp-edged tables, and a loud accompaniment of electronic, synthesized noises. The only overt concession to theatricality has the dancers dragging the tables out to the stage together at curtain opening. This rare display of unison, powerful movement degenerates quickly into a growing chaos as the dancers start moving around, below, and above the tables. At times resembling perhaps bits flying around inside a computer, or perhaps the underbelly of a crazy, tilted pinball machine as it tries to sort all the lost balls, the dancers make their way through the grid of tables, colliding, and maneuvering around each other. In contrast to the warm colors of the dancers' "real" practice clothes, the sound accompaniment is metallic and cold. In contrast to their rich, varied movement, the sound accompaniment is mostly mono-textured and barely evolves. Thom Willems, the music's composer, was playing the sound in real-time offstage on a synthesizer.
Reminding me of Shen Wei's “Rite of Spring,” where dancers stood and moved on a large painting, seemingly constrained by the lines and shapes painted onto the canvas yet managing to project an overall movement unconstrained by the barriers, “One Flat Thing Reproduced's” table barriers are just a physical emphasis of the constraints hinted by Shen Wei's painting. Similar to Hellenistic-Roman illusionism in painting before true perspective drawing was discovered, and used as a means of suggesting a real 3D space, but without allowing any interaction by the main subjects with the space --- these pseudo perspective drawings served only as pretty backgrounds --- the tables provide a more explicit delineation of stage space, but without really allowing the dancers to explore any new areas of space. The tables could have been replaced by traffic barriers or sawhorses with no physical insight lost --- why were tables used? I don't know. Perhaps that's covered in the next lesson.
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