“Limb’s Theorem” - Bayerische Stattsballett (Bavarian State Ballet)
National Theatre, Taipei; October 19, 2006
While Taiwan’s promoters seem to be happy to take risks when inviting contemporary dance companies to the country, with ballet they usually like to play it safe, the menu usually consisting of the classics and very little else. It was therefore a delight that to see National Theatre director Ping Heng take something 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 had an abhorrence to the conventional and whose architecture uses a language of skewed angles, strange geometry, voids and punctured lines.
When learning and rehearsing it, the company had to tackle many aspects unfamiliar to them, 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 familiarise themselves with the technique before Forsythe himself began working with them. The result is a visually stunning production, which in Taipei 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, so more dancers enter. Yet it remains quite dark, the light often only coming from one side creating an eerie world of shadows and of 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 emphasise 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, to be 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 is 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 as ant-like 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 they sounds winds down and the movement comes to a muted, arrested end, 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 unexpectedd irections that do not mimic existing procedures but rather attempt to break through into excitement, 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 dancer’s 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 the programme 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) means 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 the action 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 Van Manen’s “Five Tangos”, Peter Martins’ “Zakouski” and a number of excerpts from other works.