Thursday, October 11, 2012

Inkblots anyone? The Forsythe Company’s I Don’t Believe In Outer Space.

Name a work of art that’s changed the world. A poem or a painting. Guernica? Blue Poles? Philip Larkin’s ‘This Be The Verse’? They’re not like manifestos hammered on the door of the church are they? Not at the coalface of our intellectual culture are they?

How about a choreographer or a work of dance. Harder that one. It’s more likely to be by Mats Ek than Matthew Bourne you reckon. Or not. Who’s to say that Bourne’s Swan Lake isn’t more life altering than Ek’s travesty of Giselle? That Bourne’s beefy swans weren’t every bit as profound -- as alien and mystical and shockingly new -- as the very first swans in tutus?

If, like me, you’re starting to rebel at the idiocy of these questions -- questions I’m only posing because of William Forsythe’s I Don’t Believe In Outer Space, which had its Australian premiere last night -- you’ve probably got a short list happening already.

Off the top of my head, I’d fire off the following names: Raimund Hoghe, that gorgeous freak of a man. Bill T Jones circa Still/Here. Meg Stuart and the scintillating works she and Damaged Goods produced in the mid 1990s. Anything by Lloyd Newson. Perhaps all good art makes micro-changes in the world. God. Of course it does.

But even totally abstract works -- works without an obvious agenda -- are impactful. Valuable. In its premiere season -- in its premiere week! -- I saw Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929 four or five times. I reckon I could sit through it every day for a year without tiring of it.

But spare a thought for poor Billy Forsythe. He wants to be Sontag. Wants to be Hitchens. Wants to be Dworkin. He wants to be a player. If he can’t rule the world, he wants to be a thorn in the side of those who do. Pity him. He is a genius agitator stuck inside the body of a choreographer. But it’s even worse than that.

I’m sure, on this blog, I’ve mentioned philosopher and academic Arran Gare who argues most persuasively that postmodernism is responsible for the increase in the suicide rate. After long meditation on this I believe he is only partly correct. Postmodernism only kills academics and artists. To the rest of us, PoMo is the bar Moe Szyslak opens in The Simpsons, where Moe helpfully defines postmodernism as “weird for the sake of weird.”

To Billy Forsythe, it would appear, postmodernism guts art. It makes ‘meaningful’ art a futile and barren pursuit. It makes the gesture -- or any other attempt to create or communicate -- futile. In PoMo Land, beauty’s pretty suspect too.

Imagine that... having 17 of the world’s most accomplished and most insanely talented dancers and having nothing to bang on about except the pointlessness of banging on! Well, that’s what I Don’t Believe In Outer Space is like. It’s a treatise on entropy. It’s atomised and atomised again. Instead of having an arc, a trajectory, or even 17 individual trajectories, it has 17 times 17. Life is happening off-stage, somewhere beyond the O.P. flats.

It’s not even a Girl Talk mash-up. It’s a scrappy mess. Not so much a kaleidoscope as the smashed up bits of coloured glass from the kaleidoscope... without the tube.  Or mirrors.  Or lens.

I’m tempted to say that Forsythe uses songs like blue poles, as a half-arsed attempt to tie up the twigs into a bundle, but that would be to insult Jack-the-Dripper. One can find patterns: is that Jack Nicholson-style voice meant to be Screaming Jay Hawkins? (‘I Put a Spell On You’ is one of the polar songs.) Or is Jack Nicholson really Clint Eastwood, Walt from Gran Torino, as the good neighbour? But, hey, one can find patterns in anything if you stare at them long enough and hard enough and gullibly enough.

“Welcome to what you think you see” -- indeed.

I Don’t Believe In Outer Space will test your powers of observation, concentration and discrimination to the very limit... and won’t reward them in the least bit.

For a recent example of Forsythe nailing it, check out my review of the silent-but-deadly Three Atmospheric Studies.

I Don’t Believe In Outer Space. A work by William Forsythe with music composed and performed by Thom Willems. Staging William Forsythe. Sound design by Niels Lanz. Graphics by Dietrich Krüger. Costumes by Dorothee Merg. Lighting by Tanja Rühl and Ulf Naumann. Dramaturgical assistance by Dr. Freya Vass-Rhee. 

The Forsythe Company. Melbourne Festival. At the Playhouse, the Arts Centre, October 10. Season ends October 16. Then Kampnagel, Hamburg (November/December 2012) and Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Berlin (July 2013).

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Sunday, March 05, 2006

Adelaide Festival: Stau (anoukvandijk dc)

Stau. Conceived and choreographed by Anouk van Dijk. Dramaturgy by Jerry Remkes. Lighting design by Isabel Nielsen and Koen van Oosterhout. Performed by anoukvandijk dc. At The Space, Adelaide Festival Centre, March 4. Season ends March 7. Then Sydney Opera House (The Studio) from March 10 through 12. Five performances.

“Spontaneous inevitability” is an expression that David Freeman uses to describe the ideal way of directing Shakespeare. The words are more-or-less fixed, but they have to be delivered with the jousting freshness of live conversation, with the drama (if you like) of having those words deal with an actual situation or having them solve a problem in the moment of delivery. They must retain the capacity to surprise.

There’s a similar challenge in dance which adapts and ‘fixes’ the ideas and moves pioneered in “contact improvisation”. It’s an apparent contradiction: choreographing improvisation.

Dutch choreographer Anouk van Dijk calls her system of movement Countertechnique. (It’s reminiscent, in more ways than one, of Mikel Rouse’s ‘counterpoetry’.) The central pillar is the lack of a central pillar! The pelvis is no longer the superstructure underlying all movement in this kind of dance. Instead of the “static balance” that comes from the pelvic keel, there is a constant whirl of limbs in van Dijk’s dancers which offsets each and every primary gesture, each lunge and lean and whirl.

Stau is a near-perfect example of van Dijk’s theories in action. ‘Stau’ is one of those looking-glass words: it can mean “traffic jam” or the moment when tides change... that point when ebb becomes flow or vice versa.

This 80 minute work is divided into two parts. The longer first half (performed by Birgit Gunzl and Nina Wollny) is an intimate and hushed study of that tidal turn-around. The second part (in which Gunzl and Wollny are joined by Philipp Fricke and Angela Mueller) turns those tidal forces into small but dynamic eddies. The audience itself becomes the cause of the traffic jam.

The seating arrangement for the opening section is a small boxing ring, with three concentric squares of tiered seats. Before entering The Space, audience members have to remove shoes and, optionally, socks. (I’m guessing this is a first for a show at the Festival Centre!) No bags are permitted in the theatre either.

Now, bags certainly might prove to be a problem for the dancers in the latter part of the show, in which the dancers storm through the crowd after all seating has been removed, but I’m guessing that the insistence on bare feet might have more to do with some of Stau’s sustaining themes, which directly or indirectly include intimacy and personal space. Moments before the performance started, we were urged to fill up the few empty seats left in the front row... which is when I traded the safety and anonymity of back row for a ringside seat. And I’m glad I did.

Stau begins with Gunzl and Wollny leaning into one another, face to face, chest to chest. Poised. Gradually that equilibrium is lost. Surrendered really. And the two women begin to spin and pivot and whirl around the edges of the square, even snaking under chairs at one point.



Part of the thrill of the piece is, of course, the dancers’ proximity to us. Not only do we hear their breathing and the rasp of taped soles skidding against the floor, we feel the flick of hair and the occasional touch. We can’t miss the sheen of sweat. Can’t help but wonder whose nudity we have been warned about in the festival guide...

Up this close, one can’t objectify a performer in any case. They’re too human to be reduced to a sum of their parts. Sitting there, I remembered being ringside at a performance of Penny Arcade’s Bitch Dyke Faghag Whore, a performance that was intended to be titillating. I realised, there, that I couldn’t objectify a dancer, even if she was lapdancing me. To objectify her, I had to look at a video screen, a live feed of her doing her stuff. The image had to be mediated somehow.

But, no, we are not invited to objectify. Not at any stage. And, yes, there is audience participation; but, by the time it happens, it is almost anticlimactic. It’s certainly not in the least bit embarrassing or humiliating or threatening. It’s celebratory. But it lacks the thrill of danger.

Van Dijk clearly wants her audiences discomforted, but she doesn’t betray the trust she exacts from us. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Festival audiences -- even audiences at festivals the calibre of Adelaide -- are all-too-capable of swallowing weirdness whole, without ever digesting it. Acceptance becomes a kind of dismissal. We’re all “unshockable” at festivals.

I didn’t find van Dijk’s choreography especially innovative or memorable, but the performances themselves were impressive. Indelible. As skilled as they were brave. And the first 50-odd minutes I would happily sit through again and again.



Stau is a wondrous experience without necessarily being wondrous art. I couldn’t help but recall seeing Meg Stuart and Damaged Goods in this very theatre, ten years ago. Everything since has been just steps.

N.B. Images are from an early version of Stau, performed at Studio Dok, Amsterdam.

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