What a piece of work is a man! […] how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! (Hamlet, Act II, scene 2)
These four pieces were created on the bodies of dancers in the Paris Opera Ballet yet are these “ballets?” Does ballet mean: women wearing toe shoes? Fluffy tutus? Men in tights? Perennial productions of The Nutcracker? Are these four « modern » either, though? The term proves equally slippery, and as rich with clichés. Does modern mean anything anymore when we still automatically call Picasso’s work “modern” and he has been dead since 1973?
Invented in the US and Germany about a 100 years ago, modern dance defined itself against the sissified genre of ballet: rejecting any footwear and seeking a more natural way of moving, these pioneers developed a grounded, earthy, expressive form. Then in the 1960’s, a new generation of “post-modernists” went as far as one could go to eliminate, if not movement, then “dance” from their dances.
The term used much today, “Contemporary,” means reacting to and interacting with current trends in society and art. As in: what “modern” used to mean. [This month’s Dance Magazine interrogation of current choreographers on this subject inspired my musings).
The “modern contemporary ballets” we witness tonight try to defy categorization. By indirections find directions out, as Shakespeare counsels us (Hamlet Act II, scene 1).
By now almost all dance makers have learned to appreciate the way classically-trained ballet dancers understand the use of the body and its weight and its center and its energy. And they love to take chances. If anyone can look good – both ethereal and earthy — while intentionally falling off their shoes, the Paris Opera’s dancers can.
In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated (1987)
Choreography by William Forsythe; Music by Thom Willems. (28 minutes)
The mysterious title refers to just where Forsythe blithely told the Opéra’s management to put those golden cherries (so that’s what’s dangling up there!) when told he had no budget for a set.
But the music will probably bother you more than the title. The composer constructed a “Theme and Variations” out of the sound of a locomotive crashing into a train, along with electronic distortions of his own voice. 25 years on, the opening chord still…no, I won’t tell you, just sneak a look at your neighbor when the lights first blast on…I own a copy of the recording, and play it when I need something violent to get me out of a bad mood. Smashing things – or at least bouncing around full force– can prove quite cathartic, if you stick with it.
Forsythe likes the idea that any part of the body – from your big toe to your little finger — can provide the intitial impulse for a violent cascade of movement to follow. He knows that tension, distortions, weird changes in speed, all challenges can lead us to dance in ways we never thought of before. This ballet (it has girls in toe shoes, guys in tights, no?) breaks movement down in order to let the dancers exult in demonstrating how they have chosen reconstruct it.
The laws of gravity need not apply. You can start from any point or any “pointe,” in order to test the limits of your strength and balance.
For me this ballet illustrates a portion of Hamlet that I’ve always found both perfect and absurd: … there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all. (Act V, scene 2).
The dancers are ready.
O Zlozony/O Composite (2004)
Choreography byTrisha Brown;Music by Laurie Anderson.(25 minutes)
Trisha Brown belongs to an earlier generation (born in 1936 vs. Forsythe’s 1949), yet her imagination fed Forsythe’s just as her own continues to grow and evolve. A founder of the post-modern and minimalist wave one could encounter downtown at Manhattan’s Judson Church during the ‘60’s, her early works often used the music of complete silence.
With the still inventive and chic violinist Laurie Anderson (do a search of ‘O Superman’ from 1981), Brown chanced upon a poem by Czeslaw Milosz. Anderson recorded a Polish actress reading this ode to a bird and began to tweak it in her own way. Each musical section is exactly two minutes long. Brown, always willing to attempt a new way of looking at things, broke this poem down in her own manner too: a trio set against a starlit sky, against which they evolve, revolve, return, float, and come to rest.
The opening section illustrates (distills? cracks open?) the image of a branch still swinging from the heavy weight of a bird that rocked back and forth over great seas of air.
You may get distracted when the composer gets to the poet’s bird sounds: “pta, pteron, fvgls, brd.” Or by trying to figure out how dancers supposedly (according to the program) are shaping letters – including inexistent ones – of the alphabet as they go along.
The woman in this triangle sometimes wears pointe shoes. Could that mean something? I find myself again in Hamlet: see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel? (Act 3, scene 2) i.e. just let it go…and try not to think too much.
Tonight you will either die of boredom or experience a kind of out of body experience if you surrender to the dancers’ intense concentration and quiet commitment to revolving within outer dimensions of space and sound.
INTERMISSION (20 minutes)
Woundwork 1 (1999)
Choreography by William Forsythe; Music by Thom Willems. (15 minutes)
Wound as in “winding,” not “harming.” For two couples.
Growing up on Long Island in the 1960’s, Forsythe thought that dance meant the twist (and he was high school dervish) and music meant rock and roll. He discovered classical ballet in college, along with the Derrida, Foucault, Barthes…
The music stems from the recording of three clarinets, deconstructed and unraveled.
The piece could be called “roll and reroll.” Or “ twist and detwist.” While at first the two duets seem not to belong to the same place, the more you look the more you realize that one couple’s to- and-fro gets echoed, and mixed up, by the other’s.
Perhaps Hamlet fits these dancers too: though I am native here/and to the manner born – it is a custom/ more honored in the breach than the observance. (Act 1, Scene 4). By breaking some genteel rules of ballet, Forsythe frees the Parisian dancers to stylishly outdo themselves. If you are to the manner trained, is « too elegant »even possible?
Choreography by William Forsythe; Music by Thom Willems. (35 minutes)
One of the touchstones of modern French literature, Raymond Queneau’s Exercises de style, comprises 99 retellings – in 99 different literary styles – of the same dull anecdote about standing around waiting for a bus. After a while, the absurdity starts to cheer you up.
Here we only experience 20 sequences (parts) put out by 15 dancers who each latch onto micro-segments of a dance phrase (a step, a pas, let’s say “the letter ‘E’”) as they dance into and around each other. After a while, even Hamlet would have started to smile. You won’t believe your ears when Willems’s music devolves into a deliciously perverse version of the cha-cha.
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends/Rough-hew them how we will. (Act V, scene 2).