Adelaide Festival: Three Atmospheric Studies. A work from The Forsythe Company.
Also Paris, London, Zurich, Berkeley, New York and Antwerp. Full 2006/2007 tour details below.
Rare is the artist that can go beyond the desire to score a political point, that can turn great indignation into great art. Since the days of The Crucible, AIDS seems to have provoked the most interesting art in the widest variety of forms: from Tony Kushner (Angels in America) to Bill T Jones and Arnie Zane (Still/Here).
William Forsythe rates as one of the great choreographers and dance innovators of the last century, but his attempts at political comment -- especially in the last five years -- have been rather shrill.
Just weeks after 9/11, Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt responded to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington with a restaging of the 1995 work Eidos: Telos (left) and some gross-out shock tactics, screaming at audiences “I’ll shit on your baby’s face and force you to lick it off...” And that’s one of the less graphic lines.
Raised and trained in New York, Forsythe has worked in Europe since his early 20s and was director of Ballett Frankfurt from 1984 until the company was wound up in 2004.
Forsythe's new company is roughly half the size of Ballett Frankfurt. Sixteen of that squad of 18 appear in his new work, Three Atmospheric Studies. It continues his fascination with aggressively political dance theatre.
In the cross-hairs this time is US military imperialism, though the David and Goliath situation will be recognised and appreciated by any population that’s been on the receiving end of a colonial occupation or military intervention or any kind of collateral damage; from the West Bank to Chechnya, Serbia to Iraq, Afghanistan to Somalia.
To an Australian audience, the bad guys in Three Atmospheric Studies are the USA and inevitably Israel though, shrewdly, Forsythe allows some room for flexibility of interpretation.
The narrative is simple enough: a young man is arrested after a rocket attack on civilian targets. Not because he is implicated in the attack -- quite the contrary for it is a deliberate military operation -- but because he resists. According to his mother, the boy has acted to protect his sister and her friends.
The first section of this three-part work is fairly straight, floor-slapping modern dance. But it is so representational of street brawling and terror, of apprehension and escape, it’s hard not to watch it as the arrest of a dancer.
Three Atmospheric Studies, Part I (Clouds after Cranach)
Around ten minutes into the first section, the all-in scuffling slows and, suddenly, the prosaic movement is alchemically transformed into something transcendent. Miraculous. Form and function fall into line. And it lasts about sixty seconds.
The middle section is a predominantly spoken-word scene between the mother and a translator. The mother wants to make a statement to police about her son, and she needs it translated. This is a poetic and oddly surreal scene. The translator fishes around for the right words for her, unwittingly turning “apartment building” into “Byzantine citadel” and a bird into a plane. It doesn’t much matter if the translation is from Kurdish into Farsi, or Arabic into Hebrew. The point is made.
A third person occasionally interjects. The dramatic flow of the scene is dislocated. We’re invited to imagine we’re looking at a work of art, a 16th century painting; to conjure it up in our heads. We’re invited to look at the cats-cradle of threads (introduced to the stage in the brief pause between the first two sections) as if they were vanishing points on the painting.
But again, alchemically, gridlines become computer-generated bullet trajectories and a Cranach painting is suddenly a forensic analysis of a crime scene.
It’s a classic Forsythe ploy, to take us around the back of the building and show us the insides from an unfamiliar angle.
The last days of Ballett Frankfurt, 2004
It happens again in the third scene, after interval. Like the post-9/11 version of Eidos: Telos, Three Atmospheric Studies gets loud and grotesque. Ear-splittingly loud and gut-wrenchingly low. Explosive grunts into a microphone are digitally transposed down an octave or two. Even a high-pitched voice could do a passable impersonation of the possessed Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist. (You know: “The sow is mine!”)
Unlike Eidos: Telos, the shrillness here is harnessed, and eventually used to good effect.
A slightly absurd visual arts lecture becomes a disinterested guided tour of the aftermath of a rocket attack on a crowded market place. Our arm-waving guide points out bits of shrapnel and identifies bits of eviscerated bodies. A wedding ring is found... with finger still inside of it. It’s as coolly abstract -- as criminally abstract -- as a Dummy’s Guide to the Holocaust.
All the while, we hear the ingenuous and reassuring voice of an American woman (warped and lowered) speaking to the distraught mother. The platitudes pile up: “We’re offering you structure... We’re just cleaning things up... There’s no cause for alarm...”
Inevitably, as I watched Three Atmospheric Studies, I thought about Rachel Corrie. I wondered, idly, if a New York producer would tactfully postpone a scheduled production of this show. But then Forsythe is an American. And the Forsythe Company is bigger ticket, arguably, than Royal Court. And Forsythe has screwed on a dramatic silencer; the bullet is no less deadly, or well aimed...
I wondered, too, about the new Australian sedition laws. I questioned my stupidly sanguine belief that censorship won’t happen here. But of course it will. And has. It’s mostly self-imposed, but not always.
I recalled the scuttling of a University of Melbourne student theatre production of Stephen Sewell’s Sodomy & Cigarettes, a political satire about a Premier named Jeff Canute commissioned with funds from the Government of Jeff Kennett. The production was pulled after a dispute over the conditions of the original commission. Reportedly.
Sewell told me at the time: “I’d say we’re a much healthier society for looking, for knowing ourselves. It goes right back to bloody Socrates. It ain’t something that I dreamt up, that Karl Marx dreamt up, to know yourself is the most important thing that any human being can do...”
The inward gaze is essential, too, for cultures, for countries, for religions. For us all.
Three Atmospheric Studies 2006/2007 tour details:
Théâtre National de Chaillot, Paris, October 4 - 7
Sadler’s Wells, London, October 11 - 14
Schiffbauhalle, Schauspielhaus Zürich, Zurich, November 2 - 6
UCB, Berkeley, California, February 22 - 23, 2007
Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, February 28 - March 3
deSingel, Antwerpen, May 30 - June 1