Melbourne Festival: Forsythe Dance Company, Force Majeure ~ theatre notes

Friday, October 12, 2012

Melbourne Festival: Forsythe Dance Company, Force Majeure

Melbourne Festival Diary #2

I Don't Believe in Outer Space, Forsythe Dance Company; Never Did Me Any Harm, Force Majeure.
I used to say that I enjoyed seeing dance because it gave me a break from words. As I Don't Believe in Outer Space and Never Did Me Any Harm demonstrate, this is less and less the case. Language is now such a common dynamic in contemporary dance that wordless movement is almost an exception: the word is everywhere, as sonic texture, rhythmic device, vocalised meaning, instruction, play, choreographic punctuation, visual cue and so on. It is almost always language stripped of the prosaic freight of narrative or dramatic meaning; often, and most satisfyingly for me, dance liberates language as pure poem.

I Don't Believe in Outer Space, The Forsythe Company. Photo: Dominik Mentzos

William Forsythe is exemplary. I Don't Believe in Outer Space, ultimately a meditation on mortality, is a joyously traumatic work. From beginning to end it is heavy with language. This is a language which is heavily in question: no transparent vehicle of meaning, it becomes a gestural aspect of Forythe's neuroticised choreography. Forsythe's dancers are grotesquely distorted in angular, counter-intuitive gestures that somehow are haunted by an echo of the everyday, a feeling heightened by the casual dress of the dancers. This means that the work balances acutely between comedy - much of it is laugh-out-loud hilarious - and an abiding sense of anxiety, even of menace.

The empty stage is littered with round objects that at first look like shiny volcanic boulders, but which turn out to be balls of rolled-up gaffer tape. They become many things in the course of the dance: endowed randomly with qualities of lightness or heaviness, they demonstrate the ambiguities of appearance. They are images of the behaviour of matter, from the pull of gravity to the Big Bang and particle physics. They are a locus of anxiety (I worried at first about the dancers' ankles) and objects of play and chance. The balls are kicked casually around the stage by the dancers, or thrown, or swept up by their bodies, or shoved inside costumes to distort the shapes of bodies.

The work opens as Dana Caspersen, a dimunitive blonde dancer of extraordinary expressiveness, enacts an encounter between a prim housewife and a menacing new neighbour. The neighbour is predatory, growling, perhaps an alien (I was always half convinced, as this motif returned through the dance, that the alien was about to eat the housewife, although this never happened). From this opening gambit the dance bounces elliptically from one scenario to another, "as if by chance", a phrase which is repeated in one of the list-poems that stud the text.

But for all the anarchy on stage - and it does appear often to be anarchy - there is a steely sense that nothing here is by chance: not the comic ping pong players; not the giant, masked court card that is held up back stage, heavy with opaque meaning; not the absurd poetic monologues that seem to reach towards transcendent meaning and then collapse into the readymade cliches of pop songs (most sardonically, Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive). As well as the formidable discipline of his dancers, this is due to Forsythe's absolute control of the dynamics of bodies in space, most obvious when all the dancers are on stage together. The individual movements of the dancers, too intricate and various to follow, together make a strange and oddly legible harmony.

Throughout the dance, I had a growing sense that the distortions of Forsythe's choreography express something of contemporary fracture, the contemporary trauma of meaning. It made me think of an odd essay, Notes on Gesture, by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. Opening with the claim that "by the end of the nineteenth century the gestures of the Western bourgeoisie were irretrievably lost," he argues that modern bourgeoise life is characterised by a kind of Tourettian dis-ease caused by the loss of gestural meaning, which is now so normalised into everyday behaviour that we do not even notice it. Certainly there's something of the following passage operating in Forsythe's choreography:

Tourette's ... Etude sur une affection nerveuse caracterisee par de ['incoordi­nation motrice accompagnee d'echolalie et de coprolalie ...provides the clinical context for what would later become known as Tourette's Syndrome. Here that same isolation of the most everyday movement ... is applied to a description of a staggering proliferation of tics, involuntary spasms and mannerisms that can be defined only as a generalized catastrophe of the gestural sphere. The patient is incapable of either beginning or fully enacting the most simple gestures; if he or she manages to initiate a movement, it is interrupted and sent awry by uncontrollable jerkings and shudderings whereby the muscles seem to dance (chorea) quite independently of any motor purpose.

Yet the unexpectedly moving final duet, a lament for all that is lost in dying ("No more of this," says the dancer, touching the other dancer's thigh. "No more of this," stroking the collarbone) makes of these dislocations a strange kind of lyrical harmony: not by denying these fractures, but by absorbing them into new patterns of longing. For all its hijinks, absurdity and parody, there is something very gentle in I Don't Believe in Outer Space. It's a feeling of human recognition: sceptical, without illusion, wickedly hilarious, and yet forgiving. Profoundly beautiful work.

Never Did Me Any Harm, Force Majeure

It's a little unfair to consider Force Majeure next to Forsythe: while Forsythe is a choreographer with a decades-long and hugely successful creative life behind him, Kate Champion, who formed Force Majuere in 2002, still has most of hers in front of her. I saw Never Did Me Any Harm the night before The Forsythe Company, and enjoyed it, with some reservations; but watching Forsythe the next night articulated some of my unease.

In this case, language is under far less pressure: movement illustrates or exaggerates its expressiveness. It is, if you like, a prosaic rather than poetic approach to integrating dance and utterance. This is perhaps unsurprising, since the genesis for this dance theatre work is Christos Tsolkias's novel The Slap. Kate Champion and her collaborators wisely didn't seek to adapt the novel; instead, they spent three years gathering interviews with people about "contemporary parenting", collating them into the texts that are used in this show.

The performance takes place on an astroturfed stage, littered with all the accoutrements of an Australian suburban back yard: a shed, children's toys, a tree with a tyre. The performers, a mixture of actors and dancers, slip between different personae and relationships: wives and husbands, siblings, parents and children, and even, gloriously, dogs, as they examine the vexed arena of child raising. Some of the monologues are recorded, and lipsynced by the performers; some are spoken directly. Vignette after vignette, performed with a seductive physical accuracy, build a complex and often painfully funny portrayal of contemporary suburbia. There's no denying its charm.

Yet there's a thinning out as the performance continues, a feeling that it's essentially one dimensional. In the end, I felt the performance was enclosed by the language, rather than the performance opening language up into wider explorations of meaning. Language is essentially inert, conceived as a vehicle for communication that works alongside the more complex articulations of movement. Champion's inventive physicalisation and Geoff Cobham's expressive lighting ironise and displace the texts, but the words are always merely the words. There was one moment, in which projected phrases crawl down a tree trunk, when this became banally clear.

Perhaps as a result of this, the movement became progressively naturalised as the work continued, until it ceased to surprise. Perhaps this is in part a peril of thematic work, as possibilities are bent back to the central issue rather than flying off into the unexpected. Like The Slap, Never Did Me Any Harm generates its responses from a direct sense of recognition, that of seeing ourselves and our contemporaries on stage. But it goes no further than that: and so can't go any deeper.

I Don't Believe in Outer Space, a work by William Forsythe with music composed and performed and Thom Willems. The Forsythe Company, Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, until October 16.

Never Did Me Any Harm, devised by Force Majeure, directed by Kate Champion. Force Majeure and Sydney Theatre Company. Sumner at the Southbank Theatre, until October 13.


Meredith Rogers said...

Thanks Alison for a great review of a great dance work by the Forsythe company. I wish I'd given myself the chance to go twice. But I wonder if you were frustrated as I was by the lack of provenance given for the words in the show? The pop songs were easy to identify but I would have liked to know who wrote everything else - the wonderful, moving "list poems" , the treatise on research etc. The note on dramaturgy in the program is laughably unhelpful . Meredith

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, I was frustrated - I looked too. In the end I assumed, rightly or wrongly, that the text must be by William Forsythe, because he us credited as the creator of the show. If so, he is a fine writer as well as choreographer!