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The Forsythe Company

'Three Atmospheric Studies'

by Holly Messitt

February 28, 2007 -- Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY

William Forsythe’s “Three Atmospheric Studies” is both a continuation of and departure from his work with Ballet Frankfurt.  The last work of his I saw was the program at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2005, consisting of “The Room as it Was,” “Duo,” “(N.N.N.N),” and “One Flat Thing, Reproduced.”  “Three Atmospheric Studies,” which Forsythe has divided into four compositions, begins with the same random partnering and freeform movement that I remember from “One Flat Thing, Reproduced.”  Yet unlike the earlier piece, there is a clear narrative behind the movement, a narrative that becomes increasingly layered and altered through the subsequent compositions of the piece.

Forsythe establishes the narrative at the beginning of Composition I:  Jone San Martin steps forward from a line of dancers to announce, “Composition I in which my son was arrested.”  From there the twelve dancers break their line to enact chaos, struggle, and combat.  During this section, lit from above by six large florescent lights in black casings, we understand that we are seeing the aggressive anger, casualties, capture and release of war.  By following one dancer for a minute or two, I can see that each person shifts between playing the aggressor and the victim:  the one who shoved or captured seconds earlier suddenly lies on the ground and must be attended to as victim.  The only musical intrusion to the dancers’ breath, footsteps, and gasps is a brief blast of Middle Eastern pop music: clearly we know where this struggle is taking place.

By the end of Composition I, I thought, yes, this is Forsythe, only with clear narrative reference.  Composition II complicated my reaction to Composition I.  Here there is less dance movement, more narrative.  San Martin as the mother appears again onstage.  Two men accompany her, one, played by Amancio Gonzalez, sitting in front of a rack draped with bright fabrics.  The table on which he writes is strewn with textiles.  At first I think he might be her lawyer and then realize quickly as he provides the Arabic words she needs to convey the story of her son’s arrest that he is her translator.  She is telling the tale of what happened during Composition I:  her son was protecting his sister and her friend; he is a good boy and did not deserve to have been arrested. 

It takes longer to figure out why the second man, David Kern, is on stage.  While the mother sits a good distance away from the translator, Kern crouches between the two.  As the mother and the translator talk, Kern mimes something.  Then he begins articulating his words over the top of the mother and translator’s conversation.  It’s difficult at first to understand since he uses few words with any significance to the action.  At first we hear him say words referencing color and shape, “gray, medium gray, dark gray,” “square,” “circle,” while simultaneously he moves his arms in great wide circles.  Then he begins to make references:  “explosion,” “smoke,” “car,” “apartment building.”

We realize that Kern’s position is to describe without analysis the situation from Composition I.  His comments reference two images that accompany our program, one a sixteenth century Lucas Cranach the Elder painting “Lamentation Beneath the Cross” and the other a contemporary photo from Iraq “Athar Hussain,” dated November 15, 2005, showing four men – three in Iraqi uniform and one in civilian clothes – dragging a body away from a building that clearly has been bombed.  Great clouds of smoke and fire engulf the background.  These images are Compositions IV and V.

Kern’s objective description leads to new information about the situation in Composition I:  the son hit the policeman.  The mother continues to insist that he was protecting his sister and her friend, yet her speech and movement become contorted – almost as if she were breaking down, having a meltdown as a great crying sound erupts from the speakers.  When she comes out if it, she sits directly on the other side of Gonzalez’s table.  Still, Kern has the last word:  “nothing.”

The final segment begins before the end of the intermission.  Kern, again in a position to describe without analysis, this time to describe the relationships between parts of a cloud, has to speak over the noise from the back of the house.   Two male dancers come out and begin to move in relationship to each other. One has a microphone that distorts every cry and scream that he makes..One by one, the dancers from Composition I arrive on stage; all the while Kern continues his non-sequitur description of clouds.  The dancers make distortion sounds in every way possible, passing the microphone around as they cry, scream and bounce off the wall of the cube structure – most likely a representation of the apartment building and the explosion. 

Kern moves into a tour-guide-like description of the aftermath of the explosion:  “Over here they found parts of books, here a ring with a finger still in it, here CDs, a tooth, a pieces of bone.” 

One soloist arrives on stage and continues the distorted, melting movements that mirror the mother’s movement in Composition II.  San Martin still as the mother is also on stage:  She is now catatonic, supported by Gonzalez, her translator – I assume that we are still to reference him as her translator.  Dana Caspersen, who lip-synchs a George W. Bush-like voiceover, speaks to San Martin about “unintended results,” telling her that “everything is planned out,” and to “spare me the personal details.”  Finally, the only people left on the stage are the mother, the translator, the Bush-like government representative, and the soloist, who has never moved or broken her contorted movement.  The mother does not move her limbs herself but is instead carried and moved by the translator.  The “Bush” character, who has followed the mother and the translator out to the middle of the stage and positions herself between the mother and the soloist, becomes increasingly upset that the mother does not respond to the speech.  Finally “Bush” says, “Somebody’s got to be in control of the truth.  May as well be us,” and reassures the mother that “there is no cause for alarm,” provoking laughter throughout the audience.

While the narrative of protest is hard to reconstruct, that is, it’s hard to find something outside of the “it destroys people’s lives,” “it brings out both the best and the worst of humanity,” “it is perpetuated by politicians who will lie to us and justify their actions without ever having to touch the real human destruction on the ground” structure:  Forsythe’s presentation is nevertheless interesting to watch, if for no other reason than to see him continue his movement vocabulary while playing with the implications of deconstructed narrative.  While his Ballet Frankfurt pieces tended to shy away from any tight control of narrative, with “Three Atmospheric Studies,” he closely guards both the narrative and its layers.  We understand by the end, however, that there is “truth” in this piece.

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