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War and Dance

'Three Atmospheric Studies' a work by the Forsythe Company

by Stuart Sweeney

October 11, 2006 -- Sadler's Wells, London

Conventionally, we often associate the arts with themes such as form, beauty and love. However, we shouldn’t forget the vital tradition of art works addressing social and political issues. Indeed, it is arguable that Goya’s horrific depiction of the 19th Century Spanish Peninsula War in “Desastres de la Guerre” and Isaac Babel’s chilling short stories about the Russian-Polish War of 1920 are the most honest and revealing accounts of these conflicts available to us.

In dance too there is a small, but distinguished canon of work that tackles conflict and oppression, including Christopher Bruce’s brutal interrogation in “Swansong” and Kurt Jooss’s expressionist view of the First World War in “The Green Table”. Yet, there are still voices, mainly from the USA, that reject the place of such themes in dance. For instance, Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet “Manon” addresses social and gender inequalities in early 18th century Paris and Jeffrey Gantz, in a review from earlier this year, described a Boston performance as: “…art prostituted to MacMillan’s politics.” Similarly, in a recent interview, Arlene Croce, a highly respected US critic, stated that: "Choreographers mix dance with politics because it is the only way to get attention. And get grants too, probably…. I don't want to be told about Iraq or Bush or Katrina by someone younger and dumber than I am.”

For me, it is wholly appropriate that artists should tackle these themes, and the works mentioned above illustrate that such concerns can result in art of the highest quality.

William Forsythe is one of the leading choreographers working today, ranging in style from neo-classical chamber works to large-scale, avant-garde theatre. However, to my knowledge, this American, who has now adopted German citizenship, has never previously tackled themes relating to war or human rights. But in the past year, two new works directly address these issues and the London dance community was out in force to see the UK premiere of one of these, “Three Atmospheric Studies”, performed by Forsythe’s own Company. In a preview interview published by the Guardian (September 28, 2006), he gave the rationale for this choice of subject matter: "I'm a citizen and I have the opportunity to speak in public and many people don't. Dance happens to be the medium I have access to. I feel obligated on some level to use it to make a comment."

Over three acts, we see a conflict and ensuing events. A Mother opens the piece by telling us: “My son was arrested,” and the red shirted boy is a central figure in a street scene of furious activity, perhaps two warring factions, perhaps under aerial bombardment. Forsythe plays with time, repeating incidents and freezing the action for some and not others. This is an effective rendering of group commotion, panic and superficially haphazard activity, but the use of space, the richness of individual movement and occasional moments of perfect synchronization, provide shape and form, rather as Chaos Theory seeks to structure apparently random events.

In the second act, the Mother gives a statement to an official, who seems more concerned with the mechanics of translation than the events themselves. In the background, with the stage criss-crossed by strings, an art theorist analyses a painting of Mary and the Crucifixion by Cranach and a war photograph. His attempt to place the Mother in one of the paintings is rejected by her and the scene ends with her voice distorted and the narrative lost. Perhaps Forsythe is showing us the problem of ever pinning down what has happened, or as filmmaker Peter Greenaway once commented: “There is no such thing as history, only historians.”

The final act combines earlier events with more textual analysis, accompanied by sounds from a performer distorted through a microphone. At regular intervals a missile flies in with a whistle and crump from the microphone and the dancers are flattened. A new figure appears, an American propagandist, who tries to reassure the Mother by explaining that the invaders have thought it all through carefully. The sheer banality of this monologue initially made me think that Forsythe had undermined his thesis. Then I remembered a TV interview with a medical administrator from Illinois, who refused to accept his complete lack of relevant experience in a developing world war zone, even when confronted by the almost complete failure of his work in Iraq. At the end, the Mother lies still on the stage and the propagandist suggests to her that it’s all for the best, but with a first hint of concern that all is not going according to plan.

With his intellectual approach and heavily structured development of movement, Forsythe has never been a dance maker to wear his heart on his sleeve and this new work is no exception. I suspect that few if any were moved to tears, in contrast to emotionally charged work, such as Bruce’s “Swansong”. While several of the London critics were puzzled and frustrated, I was constantly involved by the cerebral power of this theatre piece and intrigued to tease out the underlying arguments. Thus, I believe that “Three Atmospheric Studies” has added to the repertoire of art works in this genre in a distinctive and challenging way and I hope to have a second chance to delve deeper into its depiction of misguided political acts and the resulting maelstrom of violence.

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