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The Forsythe Company - 'Three Atmospheric Studies'

by Ana Abad-Carles

September 11, 2006 -- Sadler's Wells. London

As part of Dance Umbrella, The Forsythe Company performed “Three Atmospheric Studies” at Sadler’s Wells Theatre. The piece was created by William Forsythe in 2005 and then reworked subsequently to its present form in February of this year.

The work is divided into three parts. Parts I and II: Clouds after Cranagh and Part III: Study III. The programme notes inform the viewer on “how William Forsythe’s ‘Three Atmospheric Studies’ turns dance into political Tanztheater”. The work seems to be inspired by the latest wars on terror.

The first part of the piece leaves little doubt about the horrors of the war, and it was the best part of the evening. Groups of dancers move in silence, except for their own breathing and physical rhythm, and get into formations that halt and show poses of violence on individuals or groups. The dynamics are those easily associated with Forsythe, though very characteristic of Twyla Tharp’s works, in which dancers throw themselves into diabolically fast paced sequences and then stop. A stamping of feet, a clap of hands initiates a new sequence that alters the groupings and creates new ones. The movement sequences may be repeated, but the viewer is constantly challenged by the structure of those repetitions. It was effective and highly powerful.

Unfortunately, the rest of the evening could not keep up with this pace and choreographic invention and slowly, the piece started dissolving into something else. The dramatic elements took over and, especially in the second part, the dance elements nearly disappeared. This is fine, but the problem was that the theatre presented was not of the highest quality and, after such a powerful opening, it fell flat on its intellectualism. There is drama in the attempt of a mother to report her missing son to an Arab translator, while a third character talks about clouds and their formation… it is only at the end that the parallel between those clouds and the cloud emerging from a bomb blast is established and the viewer learns then that her son was killed in one of these blurred moments during the fight.

The third part regains momentum through some, again, very powerful dance movement that slowly gives in to more drama in the form of comments from some characters that try to explain to the mother why the war was necessary. Another character narrates the torn limbs and organs to be found after an explosion.

For me, the most problematic point in Forsythe’s undertaking of this subject is that what he presents on the stage is no different from what we hear on the news everyday. Do we need to be told what the effects of an explosion are on a human body? Do we not already know? Perhaps there are people who do not know and perhaps, for these people, Forsythe’s piece will be a revelation in its openness and crudeness. Personally, I thought that the choreographer failed in presenting the subject in the most powerful way he could have. From the purely formal point of view, the work is unbalanced in its parts and contains too much unnecessary intellectual wandering that leads nowhere.

The dancers were good, the choreography itself was good in some parts, but the overall piece failed to make the impact it obviously aimed at. There are very good artistic works that have dealt with war before, not just ballets and dance works, but a whole corpus of artistic works that have been passed down through history as poignant documents on the horrors of war, loss and violence. The programme notes reference Goya’s “Desastres de la Guerra” (“Disasters of the War”) and states that both Goya and Forsythe’s works “strip war down to the truth”. I simply don’t think that Forsythe’s work manages to do that, in the way Goya did nearly two hundred years ago.

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