[20060075] The Forsythe Company – Three Atmospheric Studies

The Forsythe Company – Three Atmospheric Studies

The Forsythe Company @ Festival Theatre

8:00pm, Tue 14 Mar 2006

After being so disappointed with Devolution – and so envigorated by Stau – I was unsure what the Festival’s dance program was going to serve up for this piece. William Forsythe (in all the references I could find) is lauded as being at the forefront of contemporary ballet; oh look, the C-word! “C” implies a lucky dip, at the best of times. Thankfully, Three Atmospheric Studies provided a very pleasant surprise.

It’s a three-act piece derived from the impact of two images upon Forsythe – one a photo of an Iraqi policeman carrying the dead body of a young man, his mother grieving in the background; the other a Crucifixion-inspired painting, with – as Leigh Warren so perfectly described – another grief-stricken mother whose son has been sacrificed. One a raw depiction, the other a synthetic concoction – but both depicting the same emotion. Different textures, same message.

The “story” associated with the performance starts with the arrest of a young man in Act I. This piece is reminiscent of Rosas’ Drumming – it’s a dynamic cacophony of movement, with the ensemble of 12+ dancers running, panting, sweating, grabbing, clutching, falling into each other. It feels desperate, urgent, violent; at times it’s a rabble, at times it’s a vogue-fest, but there’s something there that reminds you that it’s choreographed. Maybe it’s the pregnant pauses, the looks across the stage (which is completely open in this Act, stretching waaaaaaay back into the theatre), before one slaps the floor heavily, launching into the next movement. The only noise accompanying the movement is that emitted by the dancers – Forsythe’s “breath score”.

Suddenly, we’re into Act II; the dancers (each simply clad, identifiable by their uniquely-coloured shirts) make way for the stage crew who, armed with set walls, power drills, and a single long piece of string, create the set right before our eyes (a dance in itself). Here we see the arrested man’s mother plead her son’s case through an interpreter; it’s a theatrical, dialog-heavy piece that’s almost free of movement – certainly not your typical blank-expression ballet. It’s a troubling performance, as the woman struggles just to communicate with her liaise. As her frustration and rage increases, so does the tempo of delivery – and suddenly a threshold is reached, and her speech morphs into some kind of discordant Lynchian broken dialog… utterly, utterly disturbing.

And even more suddenly, there’s an interval. Bewildered looks, nervous smiles; an uncomfortable audience.


Act III is off to an odd start; another set has been assembled, and the colourful ensemble is back, alternately reprising their style from Act I, then languishing at the edge of the stage. There’s a wireless microphone or two amongst the group, occasionally passed from person to person; it’s heavily treated so that the gutteral noises that are barked into it by the dancers reach us as weird, phasey punches. The walls of the set, too, are miked up; as performers enter the set, throwing the door shut behind them, the booming slam shudders through the audience. Again, it’s just plain disturbing. The woman from Act II is informed that her son is dead; as she grieves, a character monotones a coolly analytical view of human carnage. The dancers slow somewhat; a few act as puppeteers for others.

At the end of the day, it’s kind of difficult to describe this as dance… well, as dance as the vast populace would identify with. Then again, I’ll happily profess complete ignorance of the medium; but the Festival always seems to present pieces that straddle the line of that which I can happily identify as “dance” (1998: Who’s Afraid Of Anything, 2000: Drumming, 2002: Delirium, 2004: Held – the reason why Devolution was such a disappointment). Three Atmospheric Studies is more akin to the type of performance that we’d expect from a Fringe live visual arts performance, but polished to the n-th degree.

But that’s in no way a negative comment; this was bold, vibrant, active, and engaging across all levels; a thoroughly rewarding and cerebral performance. And – truth be told – I was amazed at the lack of people who left at the interval. Bravo, patrons; you were certainly a more tolerant bunch than those at other events.

Overheard during the interval: “Devolution was wonderful… at the end, the people looked like machines, and the machines looked like people.” Ummm… no. At the end, the people looked like people with chunks of broken metal strapped to them, and the machines looked like machines. Intent alone does not guarantee outcome.

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