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November 2011

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Juilliard Dance

Published: November 1, 2011
Category: review

The Tortuous Perambulations of William Forsythe

By Rachel Straus

NEW YORK — “Helloooooo! I’m the new neighbor,” roars tiny Dana Caspersen in a guttural voice that suggests a chain smoker on a regimen of straight bourbon. And so begins the darkly funny “I don’t believe in outer space,” William Forsythe’s 2008 dance theater work that made its New York premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival on Oct. 26.

Caspersen, who is a theatrical dynamo, immediately grabs the audience, dragging it into a surreal landscape where hundreds of oddly shaped black balls, made out of electric tape, dot the stage. Then 17 dancers, innocuously dressed in t-shirts and pants, appear. None walks a straight line. They zip and scurry, furiously short-circuiting their pliable bodies into bizarre contortions. Their range of movement resembles the balled-up electric tape strewn across the floor. It’s circular and sticky. In 80-odd minutes, the dancers’ tortuously complex perambulations evoke the chaos of the human experience.

Forsythe, a New York native, is hailed as one of the most important choreographers in Europe. He’s been based since 1974 in Germany, where for two decades he directed Ballett Frankfurt. When his work grew increasingly experimental, the company opted not to renew his contract and, in 2004, he found himself without an artistic home. A year later, he founded his own troupe, with which he has continued to move away from the deconstructed ballet technique that brought him worldwide acclaim and myriad commissions. In “I don’t believe,” not a développé (leg extension) or pirouette is in sight. But the work is undeniably a dance piece, even if it does hinge on the spoken word.

Forsythe, close to 60, has populated “I don’t believe” with lyrics from Gloria Gaynor’s 1979 hit, “I Will Survive.” Set in a postmodernist vein, it uses chaos as a structural device; every time the dancers verge on being overwrought and heady, Forsythe reins them in with a Gaynor lyric. The effect produces slapstick. When one of them says, “You think I would crumble,” many of them do.

Without Caspersen, it’s not clear whether “I don’t believe” would work. The dancer from Minnesota plays Forsythe’s bard. She channels multiple personalities. No spring chicken, she bandies her body into amazingly grotesque positions no normal person should try. Her message is carpe diem. She revolves through scenes as the cast creates an assortment of absurdist visions. The one that got the biggest laughs involved a man whose head appeared to be wrapped in a straight jacket. He ranted in a German accent about scientific “matter” and the “new zeitgeist.” Unperturbed by his blindness and a body besieged by tumorous bulges, he never loses his enthusiasm. In another comic scene, Yoko Ando is a reality-show dance instructor. With the requisite wireless mike and some awfully bright workout clothes, Ando takes an invisible group of students through a dance routine, heavy on strutting and slick poses, and taught with absolute conviction.

Thom Willems’ minimalist, unremarkable score is a minor player in “I don’t believe.” How could it not be, when one liners from Gaynor’s “I will survive,” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You” and Cat Stevens’ “It’s A Wild World” pack such a nostalgic punch. By using excerpts from the lyrics of these songs, instead of playing them over BAM’s sound system, Forsythe creates an inner landscape, a theater of our imagining. With this notion, the dancers’ virtuoso squiggling resembles a roadmap of an overloaded mind that juggles memory, tasks, anxieties and surprises—all at the same time. This state of mind, which many of us experience, can be described as a synaptic roller coaster ride. So can “I don’t believe.”

In the final moments of the work, Caspersen recedes into a black doorway as she recites Gaynor’s lines: “and so you’re back from outer space. I just walked in to find you here with that sad look upon your face.” No heavenly light emits from the portal Caspersen exits into. Unlike Gaynor’s song about survival, Forsythe’s dance leads to death. When Caspersen crosses the doorway’s threshold, “I don’t believe in outer space” becomes code for “I don’t believe in the afterlife.”

Musical America


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