Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Forsythe Company-Zellerbach Hall

Berkeley is synonymous with politics. Its authority challenging culture brought us the social upheavals of the 1960s when students and youth began to flex their activist muscles with the hope of changing the world. Berkeley continues to facilitate this type of environment by evoking controversial discourse, celebrating philosophical strangeness and inviting grass-roots protest. What better city for William Forsythe to present his company’s North American premiere of Three Atmospheric Studies, a new three-arc piece examining the brutality and pointlessness of war and conflict? Berkeley audiences are primed for investigations of and ruminations on this subject matter.

This work by the German-based Forsythe Company tells the story of a home that has been attacked in a war-torn area. The audience joins in just after the assault has occurred, and although the geographical location is not verbalized, the assumption can be made (through performers’ accents, and the language of interpretation) that the hostilities have transpired somewhere in the Middle East. Following the strike, the reaction of the family whose home was destroyed is documented through movement and dialogue. The son seeks to protect his sisters from the danger of the explosion, from the police and from the military. In the chaos of the situation, one of the military personnel is injured; the son is blamed and subsequently arrested. The matriarch of the family then seeks help and counsel from an interpreter in order to find her son and explain that his desire to defend his family had led to an unintended conclusion. In the midst of the violence, the audience sees how the members of this household cope. Fear, pain, sorrow, anger, rage and uncertainty are all apparent.

It is clear that Three Atmospheric Studies is driven by its story, and for Forsythe, the only format with which to relay a heavily narrative piece such as this is through Tanztheater. Made famous by one of Forsythe’s strongest influences as well as his contemporary German choreographer Pina Bausch, Tanztheater combines both dance and theater so that together they can play a collaborative role in representational storytelling on the stage. Bausch’s Tanztheater pieces are guided by their plot, which often includes images of violence and aggression. Therefore, taking into account the storyline of Forsythe’s composition, this incredibly dramatic genre seems a reasonable, appropriate and perhaps even obvious choice. However, as a performance design, Tanztheater has its own issues and problems, one of which is its broad definition. No matter how much the patrons of Berkeley loved the message that was portrayed in Three Atmospheric Studies, the ambiguousness of Tanztheater negatively affects this piece.

Some suggest that having a loose definition in choreographic structure is a good thing because it allows dance makers immense freedom. They do not have to confine themselves to a rigid structure, rules, or constraints. Yet, this type of vagueness also can present challenges. Most importantly, there is a lack of clarity in terms of how movement and dialogue will interact, co-exist and be juxtaposed in Tanztheater. In Forsythe’s tri-composition structure, the first chapter represents the commotion immediately following the raid and the son’s arrest through dance alone. The dancers perform halting, jerky movements, running and freezing, along with chaotic partnering sequences. There were harsh falls to the ground as well as crumbling and melting into the floor. Yes, the dance was dramatic and powerful, and illustrated the emotional distress of the situation, but it was dance, not theater. The second segment is a dramatic scene between the mother, an interpreter, and a narrator. There is some gestural movement that occurs; however, in opposition to the first section, the basis here is in acting and scene work, not dance. The final portion finally reunites the entire company in a true collaboration of dance and theater, when Tanztheater was finally evident. Both mediums were present and working together as crucial narrative elements, illustrating the aftermath of violence.

Although the plot definitely continued through each scene, the lack of integrative dance and theater in the first two portions created a disjointed feeling and a lack of crescendo leading towards the final segment. The first scene was dance and the second scene was theater; therefore, did Forsythe really present a Tanztheater piece ? The third phase of the work illustrated how significant Tanztheater can be, and how electrifying the work could have been if all three sections had been represented in such a manner. The progression of the scenes was also problematic. If Forsythe was trying to build a crescendo to the final segment, it did not work. The first portion was striking and captivating with its energy and vibrance. Then, the second scene took the energy level way down while three people basically spoke to each other about the events. Lastly, the audience was hit with the intensity of the final chapter. There was no gradual build-up.

One of the primary purposes of Tanztheater is to facilitate the telling of critical human issues. In Forsythe’s case, that goal was not fully realized with the limited amalgamation of dance and theater in the early segments of the performance. Perhaps the piece would have been better as a pure dance work rather than attempting to add another performance genre in limited areas and leave it out of others. Despite this, Berkeley loved evening, although it is important to remember that those who came to the North American premiere of Three Atmospheric Studies were by far the target audience.

Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group-Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Reggie Wilson combines the traditions of African dance and music, the modern masters, the post-modern deconstructivists, and some all-important humor with his Fist & Heel Performance Group. The company made its San Francisco debut this past weekend with a performance that transcended words, illustrating what Wilson calls, “post-African/Neo-Hoodoo Modern Dance”. The two sold-out performances left the overwhelmed audience contemplating their own artistic journey as well as celebrating the cultural expedition in which they had just been immersed. The five-piece program introduced some extraordinary dancers to the Bay Area, but more specifically, it demonstrated Wilson’s insight into and comprehension of choreographic structure. By examining the first three works of the evening, his compositional mastery is revealed in the tools of repetition and transition.

The first piece, Jumping The Broom (1994), pointed to how a deliberate use of choreographic repetition can support the narrative and emphasize an event or a connection. This duet observed a stormy relationship through a series of vignettes, with each scene highlighting a different repetitive movement phrase. Some were clearly of a pedestrian nature and others were more stylized. Regardless of their character, these continuous gestures allowed the audience to focus on how the pair reacted to each other over time. There was always a constant, the repeated movement phrase, and at the same time, there something that was developing in the dancer’s relationship, which could be juxtaposed against the constant. What they were doing physically was not changing during each scene, but their attitude towards each other was shifting as they cycled through their movements. The purpose of the piece was to follow this union through the daily repetitive nature of life, and examine how they changed as individuals and as a couple on this journey. By utilizing repetition as the controlled element in the choreography, Wilson successfully made it an integral component in his storyline by allowing the human association to take center stage.

After the first duet, Wilson came onto the stage to talk to the audience about his work, his education, his heritage and his experiences. The conversation was laid-back, relaxed, and appeared unrehearsed. He was joking with the audience, posing questions, and telling stories. As he continued to speak, he slowly transitioned from just standing to performing a rhythmical stamping pattern with his feet. Following the introduction of that percussion, he also modified his voice into an audible breath accompaniment, interspersed with his monologue. As an audience member, the astonishing thing was that these transitions happened almost without noticing that they had occurred. One minute he was conversing in a regular manner and then his dialogue was suddenly a dance. It was almost like a magic trick, where the beginning was obvious and the result was apparent, but the transition between the two was a satisfying illusion.

Michael Kouakou performed the third work of the evening, a vibrantly energetic solo entitled, Tales from the Creek (1998). Wilson describes this piece as a “male solo of searching identity”, which was readily apparent in the work. It appeared autobiographical, possibly representing Wilson’s own ongoing search through his cross-cultural dance influences. To portray this personal exploration, Wilson fused and integrated multiple different dance genres into one piece. In the solo, the audience saw the following: Limon-inspired saggital and upper body curves, Graham bow and arrow arms in arabesque and tilts in 2nd position, jazz pas de bourees, gyrating Elvis hips, Cunningham pas de chats, the old-time Charleston, circular jogging from Judson Church, and flat-footed 2nd position jumps reminiscent of African dance. That is quite a list, and at first glance it might appear that to try and depict all of these genres would produce a halting, disjointed piece. Just the opposite was true. Again, Wilson used repetition so that his audience was sufficiently familiar with a particular movement form before he moved on to another one. In a very methodical way, he introduced a particular technique and then used repetition to solidify it. As well, the transitions again were seamless; almost invisible. It was very difficult to pinpoint where one step ended and another began. As a result of the repetition and transitions, the piece was solid and unified. The segments were like pieces of a puzzle that by themselves may not say very much, but when put together, produced a clear picture of the choreographer’s intent.

The only negative about this past weekend’s performance is that it was only a two-day run. Because both nights were sold-out, it seems fair to suggest that a longer engagement would have been well supported in the Bay Area. It was a shame that more people were not able to experience the power of this choreographer and his company. It was so exceptional that it is difficult to find adequate superlatives to praise this eminent work.