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Bayerische Staatsballett (Bavarian State Ballet)

'Limb's Theorem'

by David Mead

October 19, 2006 -- National Theatre, Taipei

While Taiwan’s promoters seem happy to take risks when inviting contemporary dance companies to the country, they usually like to play it safe with ballet, the menu usually consisting of the classics and very little else.  It was therefore a delight to see National Theatre director Ping Heng take somewhat of a risk and, as part of Taipei’s ‘Made in Germany’ season of arts events, invite the Bayerische Staatsballett to bring William Forsythe’s “Limb’s Theorem”.

Made for Forsythe’s own company in 1989-90, the work entered the company repertoire in December 2004. It dates from the period of Forsythe’s study of architectural principles, notably those of Daniel Libeskind, who has always abhorred the conventional, and whose architecture uses a language of skewed angles, strange geometry, voids and punctured lines.

When learning and rehearsing the piece, the company had to tackle many unfamiliar aspects, not the least of which is that individual parts are improvisation-based:  Not unusual for Forsythe, but very unusual for what is essentially a classical ballet company.  There were many workshops to help the dancers familiarize themselves with the technique before Forsythe himself began working with them.  The result is a visually stunning production, which received prolonged enthusiastic applause and loud cheers.

“Limb’s Theorem” begins quietly; the stage very dark, but dominated by a huge sail-like sculpture under which the movements of a few dancers can just about be made out.  As Thom Willems’ sound installation gathers pace, more dancers enter.  Yet it remains quite dark, the light often only coming from one side, creating an eerie world of shadows and light and dark.  It is a world that changes as the sail, secured to the stage only in one corner, turns, quickly turning light into shadow and vice-versa.  The fact that the dancers are dressed in black only serves to emphasize the mood.  We usually see them only briefly, sometimes only a head or an arm, before they are once more engulfed by the darkness.

Act II is more intense.  The sail has gone, replaced by a wavy wall behind which the dancers sometimes disappear, and a white rope manipulated by the dancers.  The energy, lighting and score are now all much more intense.  The dancers seem mostly to be moving independently but there are times when they seem to be reacting to one another’s movements.  Are these the moments of improvisation that are in there somewhere?  Maybe, but then suddenly, Forsythe surprises us with moments of unison.

Act III sees yet another architectural object, stage left.  Is it the remains of a shell from some large nut, or maybe a slice of the dome that once housed a telescope?  Who knows?  What it does do is change the space yet again, providing more opportunities for Forysthe’s exciting choreography.  Now even more than ever, the dancers run, walk, come together and separate.  Sometimes, they dance and move alone, as in one section where most of them look busy and ant-like, as they scurry across the stage as if on urgent business, passing by others but not even acknowledging their presence.  Then suddenly, we are at then end, as the sounds wind down and the movement comes to a muted, arrested finish, the bodies slanted forwards and frozen in an awkward stance.

“Limb’s Theorem” is clearly classical ballet-based, but the beauty of it is that you never know where Forsythe is going to take you next.  Libeskind wrote that his architectural projects tend to develop in unexpected directions that do not mimic existing procedures, but rather attempt to break through intoexcitement, adventure and mystery.  By dropping form, function and program, and engaging the public, the dynamics of building take on a new dimension.  Just like Forsythe’s choreography and just like “Limb’s Theorem,” where the lighting, movement, pace, can all change into something new and unexpected.  Even the stage does so, whether by moving one of the huge sculptures, or using a floodlight on wheels to explode the light and bathe the dancers in its glow, while simultaneously contracting the space and deepening the shadows elsewhere

It’s not possible to single out individual dancers for special praise.  They were not singled out in theprogramme and there were no photographs.  It would be unfair to do so anyway.  It is a whole company work and they were all magnificent.  It says a lot for them that they looked so at home with movement and techniques that must, at first, have been somewhat alien.

The use of improvisation means that no two performances are the same, and those huge objects and the lighting design (both by Forsythe and Michael Simon) mean that you will see different things from different parts of the theatre.  Much of the first ten minutes of Act I is not only dark, but theaction takes place under the huge sail, which means that it’s only really visible from the orchestra stalls.  Yet, if you are up on the fourth level, you can see more of what is happening behind the wall and the shell especially.

Following “Limb’s Theorem”, the company performed a mixed programme that included Hans VanManen’s “Five Tangos”, Peter Martins’ “Zakouski” and a number of excerpts from other works.

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