TEXTJOCKEY F_A(R)CTOR WORKING ON (P)REVIEWS OF WILLIAM FORSYTHE’S "THREE ATMOSPHERIC STUDIES"
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It is hard to know what counts as an adequate response to the war in Iraq, and even harder to know what would be the appropriate response to the subject from a choreographer. What I love about William Forsythe is his belief that dance can do anything. While other choreographers noodle around with fairy stories or plotless depictions of love, he creates a piece that confronts the war in Iraq.
There are Europeans who want to see Americans as stupid; this time, it's a New York choreographer telling the joke. Unusually for Forsythe, "Three Atmospheric Studies" tells a story but, of course, never simply. The narrative comes from three very different perspectives which clash, overlap and repeat. Like a game of three-dimensional chess, a move here creates many effects elsewhere. The result probably conforms to no one's idea of what makes dance—or indeed theatre. It uses movement, speech, and ear-splitting sound effects. It juxtaposes the most modern technology with medieval depictions of the crucifixion; it sets the language of the justification of war against mute images of suffering. It defies definition except to say that it is clearly a substantial and provocative work of art.
The story is announced at the very beginning: 13 dancers' line up irregularly on stage and march forward. Two are instantly noticeable and one of these—Jone San Martin—immediately peels away from the rest to announce in a thick Spanish accent, "Composition one - in which my son was arrested" and then promptly disappears. "Three Atmospheric Studies" hurtles headlong into violence, war and political doublespeak, territories seldom visited by dance in recent years. That's probably just as well. The subjects are so huge and unruly, so difficult to process even when attended to from a safe distance, that their appropriation as dance themes seems foolhardy. Do you fill the stage with ketchup-smeared bodies? Or dispatch a looming, medal-covered general to swagger about? Mr. Forsythe avoids those pitfalls, perhaps because he has worked in Europe for more than 30 years and thus escaped a move toward abstraction in America, one that has handicapped American dance artists interested in traditionally dramatic or narrative choreography and performance.
Forsythe is an American who left for the headier intellectual climate of Germany, where the Forsythe Company, which rose from the ashes of his celebrated Ballett Frankfurt, is based; and he's a former savior-apparent of the ballet world who instead forsook classroom steps for relentless experimentation. He's also the only dance artist I can think of capable of evoking war with such visceral devastation. "Three Atmospheric Studies" is sobering and deeply disturbing. It is incredibly difficult to watch, which is exactly why it ought to be seen. From the purely formal point of view, the work is unbalanced in its parts and contains too much unnecessary intellectual wandering that leads nowhere. How should an audience feel, watching a piece of dance theatre that tackles one of the most criminal mistakes in recent history?
Seit 2.000 Jahren scheint die Menschheit nicht besonders voranzukommen. William Forsythe stellt diese These in seinem Stück „Three Atmospheric Studies" auf, das Bilder des Krieges aus verschiedenen Zeithorizonten und unterschiedlichen Perspektiven der Wahrnehmung beschreibt. In jedem der drei „Studies" gibt es zwar eine Mutter, die um ihren Sohn fürchtet oder trauert, dessen Geschichte sich nie ganz klären lässt; mal wurde er verhaftet, mal ist er Opfer einer Exekution oder einer Bombardierung. Ebenso ändert sich ständig, wo sich das abspielt, durch die Referenzen in der Sprache der Körper und in Texten: mal ist ein aktueller Kriegsschauplatz die Szene, dann wieder befindet man sich eher in einem mittelalterlichen Gemälde, das biblischen Zeiten gilt.
This is a Forsythe that is far removed from the man who made some of the most elegant dance works of the late twentieth century, now performed in just about every major ballet company in the world; a man who is now metaphorically holding hands with Pina Bausch and using his considerable skill and imagination to make politics out of physical theatre and dance.
"A wilderness, over there" - die Wildnis ist anderswo. So lesen wir an der Wand. Aber das Leiden ist hier. Leidend erscheinen uns diese einsamen Menschen im leeren Raum. Wenn die Wolken aufziehen und es dunkler und dunkler wird, verschwinden sie in der Dämmerung. Die Schrift aber leuchtet lange nach - ein Mahnmal in der schwarzen Nacht: „As if shortly afterwards." Später bleibt von der Schrift lediglich eine leuchtende Fläche - wir wissen, dass da etwas fehlt. Im neusten Stück von William Forsythe ist Abwesenheit allgegenwärtig. Ein Paradoxon? Nicht bei ihm.
Eine zentralperspektivisch in die Tiefe führende, graue Gasse beherrscht die Bühne. Sie wird in einer Lichtinstallation des New Yorker Künstlers Spencer Finch durch mit farbigen Folien akribisch strukturierte Neonröhren beleuchtet. Die Tänzer tragen Kleider in lichten Farben, ein Synthesizer ahmt zu Beginn Geigengesäusel nach. Die erste atmosphärische Studie ist von einer schlafwandlerischen Stimmung geprägt, in der das Licht immer wieder changiert und ausgeht, trügerisches Bunt ins Bleigrau projiziert. Die Menschen auf der Bühne staksen vereinzelt oder in kleinen Grüppchen durch die dünne Musik von David Morrow. Im Hintergrund leuchtet menetekelhaft eine Schrift aus Lichtpunkten: „Resembling dawn / A wilderness over there / As if ghostly afterwards an explosion, too distant to be heard". Etwas Unheimliches dräut - „as if nothing dangerous were circling overhead" - in der Atmosphäre, verdichtet sich während der zweiten Hälfte des ersten Teils. „A very clear day, inside", lächelt die Schrift an der Wand und deuet einen Tatort an: „Somewhere near here". Drei Figuren tanzen. Elf andere haben Klappsessel mitgebracht, setzen sich und schauen zu. Halbes Interesse, Distanz, Gegendiewandstarren. Die Wand schreibt: „Like an army, before this wall."
"My son was arrested," says Jone San Martin at the start. Then this 18-strong company rush through different groupings, silent apart from gasps of breath. Every so often, they freeze into tableaux. You have to know what you're looking for to recognise the moment of arrest, the impact of an explosion. Even then, you could miss them. As they bustle from pose to pose, Forsythe's dancers might be a movement class evoking rush hour.
Das dreiteilige Stück für sechzehn Tänzer beginnt mit einem deliriumsähnlichen, hochstilisierten Portrait von Straßenchaos. Die Gewalt eskaliert, Explosionen widerhallen, Körper preschen vor und fliegen. Hypnotisiert von dem Leid und der unbestreitbaren Schönheit der Arbeit kann man die Augen einfach nicht abwenden.
Forsythe's strategy in Study I is apparently to show us every death statistic made flesh, as his dancers are orchestrated into hundreds of flickering freeze-frame tableaux, their bodies flailing, their eyes staring in dread. The only sound during the whole 20 minutes is of animal grunts and panting - Forsythe seems to dare us to find the cumulative effect boring.
In the first scene, we're in the street with the crowd, running from explosions and cowering from helicopters. And I do mean "we": Forsythe's company of 12 wear Western street clothes—they look like us, and we are forced to identify. The music is the sound of the dancers' sharp exhales, and the silences between; the movement starts out ragged and unstylized but grows dancier and more virtuosic. Arms seem to dislocate from shoulders, while deep backbends rise from the floor as though someone pressed rewind on nightly news footage.
The opening study is a stylized depiction and repetition of the son's abduction in a pitched battle that gives Mr. Forsythe's dancers a chance to spill out and reform in interesting and unexpected groups and patterns. His use of space, full and empty, is satisfying visually and emotionally.
In Study II it is language that becomes the casualty of war. While one dancer blandly discusses the compositional dynamics of war pictures, two others become "characters" from inside those images. A young boy has been arrested by troops, and his mother is urgently protesting his innocence to a man who in turn pedantically translates her words into Arabic. The three individual monologues bleed into a confusion that leaves the "truth" of the situation impossible to identify. All that is left to the mother, performed by Jone San Martin, is a distorted, electrifying howl of agony.
The second study overlays the mother's attempts to explain the circumstances of her son's arrest to a translator, who moulds her English into Arabic, gradually also changing the order and sense of her words. Their scene is juxtaposed with the disconnected efforts of another dancer (David Kern) to trace lines (represented by ropes strung across the stage) which give some spatial context to the explosive events in composition one. Anyone unfamiliar with the work's origins is caught by the surprising references to compositions four and five, which seems bizarre since there are only three studies. It transpires that the additional parts refer to Lukas Cranach the Elder's "The Crucifixion" (painted in 1503) and a modern press agency photograph of an explosion. Both pictures were hanging in the foyer to add yet another dimension to Forsythe's obsession with deconstruction. There are five atmospheric studies but only three of them make it to the stage.
In scene two, a mother (Jone San Martin) tries to explain to a bureaucrat translator (Amancio Gonzalez) that her son has been arrested. Meanwhile, David Kern weaves between, giving verbal descriptions of Forsythe's four key images. Dissertations could be written about the complex ideas in play here about communication, but Forsythe makes one immediately affecting choice: We learn with the mother that her son is dead; we feel the shock. In the midst of cerebral conceptualism comes sudden unabated pain.
In the second scene, or study, a woman (Jone San Martin) has come to report the disappearance of her son (Ander Zabala) after a bombing. She speaks, tearlessly and with mundane purpose to two officials who force her to parse her account into fragments before they translate them into Arabic in a scene of rabbit-hole madness. She responds with almost no emotion, as blankly purposeful as they. The first official (David Kern) reworks each sentence or so, to make it translate better, he says, though his changes are merely a matter of reordering words. A strange physical dimension is added as he then seems to continue the process by translating her words into a kind of looping, whole-body sign language that has nothing to do with what she describes. The second official (Amancio Gonzalez) is older and a more familiar bureaucratic type, whose questions and reordering of her account deny its validity, small detail by small detail. There are overtones here of the Balkan war, and also of Arthur Kopit's "Wings," a play that stunningly portrays a woman's attempt to retrieve language after a stroke. The goal is the opposite here, but "Studies" is nearly as methodical and provocative a theatrical dissertation on words and their use.
In the second study, San Martin tries to tell her story to an interpreter. He picks at her words, urges her to hurry up, until she protests that he doesn't understand. At the same time, David Kern potters about, murmuring and taking poses. It becomes clear that he's describing images—pictures that we can't see, though some of them are hung up in the foyer. One is a Cranach crucifixion, another a scene of devastation in Iraq. Kern describes billowing smoke, clouds, lines and colours. This is tanztheater, after Pina Bausch: people who don't or won't understand each other, at length, in non-naturalistic style. But the images aren't particularly vivid or expressive. The strongest is San Martin's lament. She jumps up to express her angst, screeching and staggering, her voice electronically distorted. While the sound effects make this harsher, they also distance us from her.
In the second scene, San Martin reappears, sitting in a chair, feet crossed in ungainly worry. She begins to describe the scene we have just seen to a man who translates her words into Arabic. By her side, dancer David Kern is talking and gesticulating. As his voice comes into focus, you hear that he is describing the perspective in three further studies: two paintings of the crucifixion, and a news image of soldiers carrying a wounded man from the scene of an explosion. Gradually, the scene builds to an extraordinary crescendo of grief and confusion, as the different descriptions become muddled and San Martin rises from her chair to wind her body into a fugue of despair, driving the timing with her painfully difficult movement. Finally, her identification with the grieving mother at the foot of the cross is complete; she realises her son is dead.
Im zweiten Teil der atmosphärischen Studien kommt der Krieg. Geschosse zischen über eine haltlose Menschenmenge. Ein Bilddeuter (David Kern) erklärt erst eine Wolkenformation auf einem Foto, dann die - imaginären - Zerstörungen rundum, macht auf wild verstreute Dinge des täglichen Lebens aufmerksam. Mit verzerrter Männerstimme redet eine Frau (Dana Caspersen) auf ein paralysiertes Opfer ein: „Ma'am, you understand that everything that happened there was necessary." Hände hämmern gegen Wände, Körper kollabieren, Leichen liegen Seite an Seite, eine fassungslose Frau irrt mit verzogenen Gliedern und verzerrter Miene umher. Was als Traumwandlerei begonnen hat, endet in einem Schreckenstanz über den Zynismus der Kriegslogik.
The third part is the most explicit, and the crudest. Kern stands by a wall, pointing out details of a painted cloud study. After some minutes, his words are drowned out, as Ander Zabala starts growling into a microphone, gargling and crowing, inarticulacy drowning out words. He sounds like an alien from a Star Wars movie. In a quieter moment, Kern starts to describe the aftermath of an explosion. When he mentions a rocket, a crater, the other dancers are knocked to the ground, acting out his words. When they fall against the wall, it echoes with the sound of explosions.
Kern offers more artspeak in the third "composition," discussing the cloud formations pictured on a small screen set in an angled wooden wall. The mother sits numbly in a chair, the translator behind her. The program credits music to David Morrow and Thom Willems, but not much "music" is heard. Instead Zabala starts speaking into a mic, his voice distorted and amplified into a growl. When the men who may have been police in the first scene hurl themselves against the wall, the impact produces a deep, ear-splitting rumble. Several of the dozen powerful performers who crash through a door in the wall and race out from behind it to grapple and fall acquire mics too. The explosive sounds become almost unbearable. In a sudden lull, Dana Caspersen appears and addresses San Martin as "Ma'am" in a voice from the American South that's been manipulated to sound both male and female. Everything's fine. Whatever has happened, it's nothing personal. Take it easy. Finally: "Your point of view is not interesting to me."
The final study places the action back at the aftermath of the bomb with Kern now babbling incoherently about a cloud formation seen through the window of an outline building. The Mother sits silently on a chair and is eventually confronted by Dana Caspersen, a tiny blonde figure, miming to a deep, redneck drawl, declaring "that this is not personal, ma'am; I understand your point of view, but your point of view is not interesting to me". Meanwhile. Kern has moved on from the weather to list a catalogue of human debris after the explosion ("here is a ring, with a hand still in it..."). Now you realise that this is a ballet of our times, representing the unimaginable human suffering of war and Forsythe's revulsion at the uncaring bravado of his fellow Americans in the Middle East.
In the third scene the mother sits apathetically on the brink of a tumbling, ear-splitting chaos of fast-milling bodies and sound produced ingeniously by a man (Mr. Zabala) breathing hard and hissing into a hand-held microphone as he moves. She is alive. But there is nothing left of her, nothing for her to hear or understand in the flood of propaganda spoken by a figure whom Mr. Forsythe has referred to as "CondoleezzaRumsfeldBush," though Mr. Forsythe allows the figure a small fleck of compassion toward the end of the rant.
In the final section, Forsythe dins into us the sheer nightmare sound of war, as on a brutally over-amplified stage the dancers crash and dodge invisible bullets. The only human voice left is a Donald Rumsfeld sound-alike, mouthing platitudes about American good intentions.
In the final scene, we're back in the mayhem, but now the horror is compounded, those sharp exhales amplified to a monstrous roar as Thom Willems' music threads creepily through. The mother watches numbly, which is all she can do. Dana Caspersen arrives, her voice electronically manipulated to a man's Southern drawl. She is the Great Decider, and her most chilling platitude is this: "I need to go, can't be hanging around here forever." It's the moment, I think, that elevates "Three Atmospheric Studies" above the naivete that plagues political art: An acknowledgment that if we leave, as eventually we must, we will be failing an awesome responsibility that we had no right to claim in the first place.
Körper krachen unsanft auf die Holzwände, gehen zu Boden. Plötzlich werden einstürzende Gebäude, versprengte Trümmer und Gliedmaßen geschildert, ein Katastrophenszenario. Dana Caspersen wirbt mit elektronisch verzerrter Männerstimme um Verständnis für die nötigen Ordnungsmaßnahmen: „Things fall apart Ma'am. Sometimes we just have to clean things up."
The slight, blonde Dana Caspersen mouths along to a male voiceover, which spouts self-seeking platitudes: "Apart from the ongoing state of emergency, ma'am, there is no cause for alarm." The accent is from the American South - is it Texan?
The concluding part ratchets up American-born Forsythe's anger at both this war - and all war - as once again, a bomb falls, smoke rises, and Kern, who has been describing a painting of clouds, starts to describe the debris: "melted Legos... head of a Barbie doll... ring with a hand still in it... pieces of heart". The dancers twist themselves into maimed shapes, visible symbols of the psychological effects of war.
This has to be one of the hardest works I have ever sat through, for within its 90 minutes, only that one harrowing maternal howl allows for any kind of theatrical empathy. The rest of the material ranges from the irritating, to the alienating to the uncomfortable. But that is probably the point of this restless, angry, unaccommodating piece.
As Forsythe shows—sometimes patly, mostly with brilliantly incisive force—whoever the aggressors in a war or persecution, they and their victims become components of a self-winding machine. No theater curtain descends to stop it.
Ein beklemmender Abend. Und einer, der Lichtjahre entfernt ist von gängiger Ballett- und Opernästhetik.
It's uncomfortable viewing—as with Bausch, there were several who walked out early; the satire is frequently served on a shovel, where a spoon would have been better; but it succeeds—in spades—at shrinking the horrors of war into a human dimension.
Naturalistisch oder illustrativ ist diese Beschreibung des Schreckens nie; die Formen sind physisch präzise, deutlich und zugleich verfremdet.
Do we need to be told what the effects of an explosion are on a human body? Do we not already know? Perhaps there are people who do not know and perhaps, for these people, Forsythe's piece will be a revelation in its openness and crudeness.
"Three Atmospheric Studies" has been called Forsythe's "Guernica," and though the comparison may sound facile, it's apt. In these dancers' twisted physicality, one can see Picasso's destruction set in motion—heads snapped back, limbs reconfigured to a corpse's fractured rest. Rarely have I seen anything on stage as startling as San Martin's throes of grief—her face and body blown apart in slow-motion, her voice spasming like some George Crumb outtake.
Auffällig unaufwendig und zum Teil mit ironischer Schärfe inszeniert Forsythe diese Apokalypse, in der das Ungeheuerliche bar jeder Überhöhung dargestellt wird: „Things fall apart, that's just the way it is." Mit phantastischem Feingefühl leitet der Choreograf seine Figuren durch den Metaphernraum der Bühne, der sich als Reflexionszone hinter den wolkigen Fernsehbildern, die den Krieg täglich als Infotainment in alle Wohnzimmer tragen, bewährt.
It is furious, strangely beautiful and absolutely compelling. Forsythe has created a work both specific and universal. It is an anti-war tirade, but also an examination of how art itself works—building, layering, changing the picture, looking back to the past to understand the present.
Forsythe succeeds in creating imposing images of war purely by means of the human body, however, despite their great clarity he refuses to use these images to articulate a specific political thesis, preferring instead to generate choreography and direction out of the fatal inner energies of the conflict.