By Rachel Straus
A bomb. Bone fragments on broken pavement. A mother’s search for her son—in no apparent order.
These are William Forsythe’s raw materials for ''Three Atmospheric Studies.'' They bear little in common with the 58-year-old philosopher-choreographer’s former predilection for abstractions. Nor do they lend themselves to développé, penché, pirouette. In Forsythe’s action play—a ballet it is not—the American-born choreographer brings the American-led war home though pedestrian movement under duress. The effect is brilliant.
But first I had to swallow my disappointment. This two-year old company—of which the majority of performers hail from Forsythe’s former artistic home Ballett Frankfurt—wasn’t going to dance. The choreographer’s deft inversion of the classical idiom was gone. His dancers weren’t draped in body-pleasing clothing nor did they move to music either. But it ceased to matter. Forsythe found ways, like a master origami maker’s handling of rice paper, to shape his dancers into unsentimental subjects of war. Yoko Ando moved across a diagonal as though invisibly dragged by one foot. She fought back, twisting her torso like a snake. Another dancer jerked him self down and up, twisted in and around like a dog scurrying through a collapsing building. The only sound on stage came from the dancers’ increasing gasps for breaths and thuds to the floor. And as the action increased, the compositionally-beautiful chaos took on a rhythm of its own: accelerando.
There was also a story to follow: The son’s. We learn in scene two that he wasn’t arrested but shot. Nonetheless, the mother’s belief that foreigners arrested him after a bomb hit their apartment and that he is alive prompts her to work with an Arabic translator, played by Amancio Gonzalez. In between the mother and the translator is David Kern who first performs as a mime and then as an art connoisseur, holding forth on Lucas Cranach’s 1503 ''Lamentation Beneath the Cross.'' Kern refers to this works as ''Composition No. 1'' too. And that is when the analogies start taking over. We learn that in Cranach’s painting Christ’s mother mourns in the left hand corner as does Forsythe’s. Similarly on Forsythe’s stage, a double-white wire diagonally hovers above center left. This compositional marking is also where Cranach’s crucified Christ is suspended.
Adding to this heft of visual aid comes another dancer who insists that Composition No. 1 is something else. Gonzalez, playing the translator, tells the mother that it's a photo by Athar Hussain of uniformed men running and carrying a broken-looking body as a car bursts into flames behind them. Finally, we learn that the clouds in Hussain’s photo and the clouds in Cranach’s painting are in the same space. And that’s when Forsythe’s message—man’s time on earth is a continuum of violence and that the violence looks much the same—reaches tedium.
Fortunately, when the mother character played by Martin is shown the war photo and is told by the translator that her son has been shot, Forsythe returns to his genius for physical expression. As Martin's heart drops to her knee and her repeated words, ''I don’t understand,'' warble in her larynx, her rumbling, twisting torso starts to look like it's disassembling. This horrifying image, which lasts no longer than five minutes, would impress a special effects man. Its power cuts all the previous intellectualizing to the quick. The body doesn’t lie, shows Forsythe. This mother is dying. Sorrow and rage, just like a bomb, kill.
Forsythe said his inspiration for making ''Three'' came from Cranach’s crucifixion painting and from following the Iraq war. In 2004, after leaving his position as Ballett Frankfurt’s artistic director, Forsythe was interviewed a lot. The inevitable question journalists asked Forsythe—an American living abroad for more than 30 years—was about his position on the war. Forsythe’s answer comes in the third scene of ''Three'' through the body of his American wife Dana Caspersen who is also a company dancer. Petite with black slacks and good walking shoes, Caspersen enters after we witness the bombing described by the mother in scene two. Caspersen approaches the mother, who is now catatonic, and opens her mouth. But another voice booms out in a southern drawl: ''Everything that happened today is because we planned it.'' Then Caspersen, as Donald Rumsfeld incarnate says ''This is not personal, Ma’am.''
The ''this'' is total destruction. Forsythe begins the carnage scene with Zabala, who plays the son, running out of a doorway holding a microphone. Zabala breathes down on the mike and out comes the sound of a beast. He breathes again and half the audience takes their hands to their ears because the sound is so deafening. One by one the cast hurls themselves out the door. They look like they are improvising, but the baroque counter pointing of arms and legs, rolls and jumps, slides and crouches reveals Forsythe the choreography hard at work. Nonetheless, the evening ends with words. ''My department has recently conducted three atmospheric studies,'' Caspersen-Rumsfeld intones. ''There is no cause for alarm.''
''Three Atmospheric Studies'' is the first dance work ever to win a prize at the Berlin Theatre Festival. With this encouragement from the theater establishment, I fear that William Forsythe will hang up his dance card. I hope he doesn't. Clearly Forsythe has the gravitas to make political theater, but to my mind he has some thing grander: the ability to choreograph the human body beyond its blood and bones vulnerability, beyond its condition of being under siege.