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Jack Anderson

Choreographing Carnage


The Forsythe Company: "Three Atmospheric Studies"
Brooklyn Academy of Music, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Fort Greene, Brooklyn
Feb. 28-March 3, $70, $60, $40, $20
Tickets: (718) 636-4100 or www.BAM.org
Reviewed by Jack Anderson, March 3, 2007

The title is innocuous: "Three Atmospheric Studies." But while William Forsythe's new work for his Forsythe Company does have three parts and could in a perverse way be termed "atmospheric," it's not innocuous: it's incendiary, it rages against war. Forsythe seeks to convey war's horrors. At the same time, he grapples with the overall artistic problem of finding a way to transform carnage into art so that the finished product has impact without exemplifying either tabloid sensationalism or the sort of chilling aestheticism that might treat bombing raids as if they were fireworks displays.

Scene in "Three Atmospheric Studies" by The William
Forsythe Company. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

The war in this dance is never explained, perhaps because it can't be. And although the people waging it and the government officials who try to justify it are never identified, it's not hard to guess who Forsythe has in mind. But he also looks beyond the topical. He has said that his inspirations included a Reuters news photo (displayed in the lobby) showing a street raid in Iraq with blazing fires and a 16th-century Crucifixion by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Actually, two Cranach Crucifixion paintings may be involved: one reproduced both in the lobby and in the program book shows two figures beside the crosses, while the other (shown only in the lobby) places a whole crowd there. Both the news photo and the paintings have ominous storm clouds in their upper-right corners, and clouds appear on a panel in the setting for the dance's anguished last scene, all these clouds perhaps implying that suffering can darken any century.

Forsythe's first scene makes icy art from the heat of war. There is no accompaniment except for the dancers' grunts and gasps and a single spoken declaration by a mother, played by Jone San Martin: "My son was arrested." This episode shows Forsythe's flair for devising group movements. His theme may be chaos in the streets, yet everyone is carefully spaced and their flinging and twisting steps, though signifying disruption, are lucidly ordered so that events can be savored as well as watched.

Forsythe's obvious choreographic calculation here suggests he realizes that when artists order violent events into art they inevitably distort reality. Nevertheless, if the results are eloquent, we approve and applaud.

But Forsythe is also aware that too many polished scenes of this sort would make his production fall into the war-as-aesthetics trap. He knows as well that artistic distortions of reality can be falsifications, ranging from the misleading to the despicable.

Scene in "Three Atmospheric Studies" by The William
Forsythe Company. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

His other episodes concern distortion. In the text-based second scene, set in an office, the mother tries to tell officials what happened. While an electronic score by David Morrow rumbles away, one official puts the woman's increasingly agitated English words into Arabic; another translates them into some sort of sign language. Emotional outpourings turn into bureaucratic procedures and are denatured in the process. Although Forsythe's observations are valid, he takes what seems a long time to present them, and the production starts sagging.

Things explode in the final scene. Shattering detonations dominate Thom Willems's electronic accompaniment, and Forsythe's choreography again depicts conflicts. But unlike those in the first scene, these require dancers to dash and hurtle wildly, and panic prevails. When the hubbub diminishes a bit, a bureaucrat tries to give the dazed mother a justification for the day's catastrophes: yes, they were unfortunate, no doubt, but also "necessary," for "we are offering you structure." The grimly satiric text by Forsythe, Dana Caspersen, and David Kern, is an appalling, yet depressingly familiar, bit of political doublespeak.

Lasting only 90 minutes, including intermission, the production offers much to admire. Nevertheless, there were moments, especially in the second scene, when Forsythe belabored matters and throughout the evening I kept recalling an older and even shorter, but more vivid, anti-war dance about unidentified armies who fight unexplained wars while hypocritical diplomats blather: Kurt Jooss's "Green Table" of 1932. Forsythe never equals Jooss. Yet his moral fervor remains admirable and he goads us into thinking about the times in which we live.

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