”Three Atmospheric Studies,” Forsythe Company, Zellerbach Auditorium, Berkeley, February 23, 1007
This is not the Forsythe you remember from in the middle somewhat elevated. It’s the expatriate Forsythe who’s spent a long time on the outside looking in. If you’ve ever been the family pariah or shunned by others, you know how disarmed, disoriented and alone you can feel when a crisis is at hand; you can feel like a mother whose son has been sacrificed for some intangible purpose belonging to history, belonging to your enemies, but not to you.
Art, politics, dance, theater: There’s a lot to look at, both in the lobby and on the stage of the North American premiere of this three-part work.Termed “anti-war” by some critics and sidelined by others because it’s not really ballet, Forsythe counters that it is in fact a statement of “citizenship.” “Anti-war” is too narrow and shallow a term to capture what he is unmasking here. He proposes a citizenship that scrutinizes an entire culture, a civilization born of a history in which “not much has changed” in two thousand years, according to remarks he makes in a post-performance reception address. Of course a lot has changed historically and technologically, and perhaps that it why it is so shattering that what hasn’t changed in two millennia is our affect. The inspiration for this work came from “The Crucifixion,” a 16th Century Lucas Cranach painting showing Mother Mary bereft and inconsolable at the sight of her son Jesus crucified for the sins of a society in decline. Pontius Pilate, “The Decider” of Ancient Rome, condemned Jesus, but for centuries lesser lights opportunistically alleged that Christ’s death was the work of the “Jewish Lobby.” For Forsythe, George W. Bush picked up where Pilate left off, invoking the sacred name of The Rule of Law, when what he and his ilk actually hold sacred is total dominion—legal or illegal—acquired by any means available, over the real estate on which others dwell.
That’s a big bill to fill in one evening, and perhaps disappointing to those expecting something more in the middle and a little less elevated. The words that launch Part I & II, “Clouds after Cranach” are the mother’s, spoken by Amancio Gonzalez: “This is Composition I in which my son was arrested.” With those words, she renders to the modern day Caesar what she has convinced herself is evidence of an unjust arrest. Forsythe tells us later that she represents him: Confused, bereft, disarmed, alone, and speaking the only language she knows. Dancers in street clothes enter and begin a series of interactions where their bold movement is serially aborted. One or two dancers get out in front of the fray, prompting the others into molecular interpolations of aggression—like contact improv minus bruising and plus apprehension in both senses of the word. The dancers act defensively out of apprehension. They apprehend parts of themselves to arrest their own momentum. They apprehend parts of others to frustrate efforts that go too far in any one direction. I tried to assign counts of eight to each bourgeon or boil up that ended in a tableau vivant. Doing so helped me see that what had seemed random was part of a pattern where the focus keeps shifting from “arrest” by apprehension to the moral caesura of an outstretched arm pointing an accusatory finger or a dancer spiraling her own her spine in a death agony that is extreme but without unction. You can’t really appreciate the cohesion in Part I until you see and hear Part III, which supplies the missing sound. Then it’s Intermission and you’re in a state of suspended animation. You don’t feel like chatting so you take the opportunity to examine the installation of Cranach paintings in the lobby for clues. I know what you’re thinking, but no, this is so not the Da Vinci Code ballet. It is more like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys Solve the Mystery of the “Real Story Ballet,” only to have their eyes pried wide open. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…
In Part II, which precedes the intermission, the stage is set for an interrogation of the mother. What did she actually see? the cop wants to know. When he says, “Trust me,” she says, “I don’t trust myself!” We hear drilling and a motor winding in the background, and now the mother trying to be heard in words that the interrogator translates into Arabic as she speaks them in English. We live in a world of advanced communication where ironically, understanding one another is harder than ever. The mother dutifully repeats the cop’s translations as if to make them her own and at the same time affirm her version of the story. Eager to get to the facts, he chastises her for echoing him. I am thinking of the 1998 book by Leonard Schlain called “The Alphabet Versus the Goddess.” Schlain accepts that the rise of the family, private property and the state spelled doom for the matriarchal clans, but proposes that the development of the alphabet to record the rise of the patriarchy and its various tyrannies was the ultimate nail in the sarcophagus for women. Two thousand years hence, we find a male cop wielding pen and paper to record some awful misstep that will seal the mother’s fate, and her with no tools except her shell-shocked memory, riddled with false impressions that her son was arrested, and did not die from a bloody wound to his side.
In voiceover style, an interlocutor describes the Cranach painting as if he were objectively reporting the facts of a human interest story against the subjective cacophony of wartime chaos. Like the cables that intersect behind them, the axes of the mother and the cop eventually cross, as she now challenges his efforts to tell her what happened even more angrily than he earlier frustrated hers to report what didn’t. As Dr. Phil might put it, “When Mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.” Yes, but when faced with the imperatives arrogated by the Pentagon and the State Department, Dr. Phil, we’d rather be right than happy; moreover, we’d rather be respected than popular with the “in” crowd. Part II ends when the mother, whose speech is electronically thinned out and then slowed to near paralysis for having lost all hope, asks “How does one say ‘nothing’?” and he gives her the Arabic word “azhoydeh,” which she repeats as if to finally cop to the only interpretation that can negotiate “peace” at the cost of justice. Nothing. Azhoydeh.
“Study III” places us outside what in the lower tech days of U.S. warfare might have been a Quonset Hut, but in today’s “intel” era is a port-a-classroom plywood wall, where two empty chairs afford a place where you can sit and wait forever before discovering what goes on inside. As the chorus of dancers reprises Part I, this time to glottal and sibilant human sounds rendered curiously terrifying by a special microphone program, a dancer delivers a discursive explanation of cloud movement (there are dark death clouds in the Cranach painting, but the clouds he points to on his illustration are as white as the word “whitewash”). It is tempting to think that the complex of movement he is describing is Forsythe’s process of creating work on the dancers. His studied coherence is disturbingly dissonant in the context of what occurs elsewhere onstage: dancers throwing themselves against the plywood port-a-classroom, careening into each other to the human sounds programmed to replicate missiles headed toward their targets.
Dana Caspersen, who wrote the script and is female, suddenly begins to lip sync a male voice attempting to justify the policy responsible for the mother’s shock and awe. In an exaggerated reaction formation, Caspersen’s character assumes the persona of an on-the-ground point man whose Texas twang conjures up a clownish George W. Bush, the political figure many complacently hold wholly responsible for the so-called mistake in Iraq. For me, this is the weakest element in an otherwise on-target effort. The voice of U.S. imperialism can no more be caricatured with a Texas accent than the voice of fascism can be caricatured with a German one. The catastrophe in Iraq is not the result of, nor can it be dismissed as the unhappy bumbling coincidence of awkward manners and malapropisms. The real voice (and diction) of U.S. imperialism has articulated a centuries-long military campaign including not only Iraq, but Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, China, North Korea, Cuba, Grenada, Iran, Panama, Libya, Palestine, Venezuela, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, long before George W. Bush took office. It has for the most part delivered its imperatives in an Eastern Standard Exeter-cultivated drawl, fully present in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s intonation “I hate war.” He delivered his fireside chats even as he closed U.S. borders to European Jews needing refuge from German and Polish concentration camps. He continued “chatting” as he sent a draft army into World War II ostensibly to fight fascism, where Soviet troops did the heavy lifting, and U.S. spoils included real estate on which military bases were built that ringed the entire world. To lampoon Bush’s verbal ineptitude is to avert one’s eyes exactly as the mother does in the face of real danger and death.
When Caspersen transitioned from the Bush persona to a macabre kind of Dr. Seuss-for-grownups, she summed up the whole catastrophe with the words, “Ma’am, I came all the way over here from all the way over there,” because “somebody’s got to be in control of the truth and it might as well be us.” She then redundantly instructs the torpid mother to “just lie down, just lie down.” In “Three Atmospheric Studies,” Forsythe seems to be sounding an urgent call to his audiences to “Just stand up.”
Just go see it and just stand up.