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.