No reluctance to speak

Linda Walker enters William Forsythe’s atmospheres

The Forsythe Company, Three Atmospheric Studies

The Forsythe Company, Three Atmospheric Studies

The dancers line up along the back of the stage. We quickly become silent. A woman and a man walk forward beneath the low hooded lights, she further than he. She contorts her body (or does she only point at him), and says: “the night my son was arrested.” His body is frozen (maybe an arm is folded over his head, his body screwed away from the audience). She walks off. And the battle begins. This is how I remember it, and I’m sure I’m wrong. And being sure is a poke in the eye about witnessing, about reporting (telling what was), and the impossibility of that, even while feeling the pleasure of telling (tales). Telling is a freedom, a fragment of freedom, and that’s what we were watching—the fragment’s brief and discontinuous circumstance.

The ‘battle’ is an endless round of violent encounters, so finely worked out that while one contemplates the improvisation of street/gang brawls, one is also amazed by the formations of the body as it fights, and the permutations of bodies as they tangle and untangle, and the timing needed to ‘get-the-job-done’ and to keep the job coming, to prolong and inflame the situation. Then a pause, a still image; the eyes rest upon a moment. It is familiar; we’ve recently seen it on the TV from Cronulla for instance, and we’ve seen it in films; we know the moves and the perpetual energy. It can go on and on, and that’s alarming; and as the bodies physically tire they become sound—gasping and grunting floats to our ears, not by dramatized force but by the real-time exhaustion of the dancers. Sound becomes dance; and sound, as much as narrative, sets up the next 2 atmospheres—compositions 2 and 3 of Forysthe’s Three Atmospheric Studies.

Giving evidence while trying to work out what happened is the atmosphere of the second composition, Atmospheric Study 2, which itself has, language-wise, several compositions to deal with (nothing is straightforward). The woman who tells her story—how she saw what happened to her son (the one arrested)—thinks she’s in composition 1, but composition 2 comes to bear upon her story and its recording, and then composition 3 does too. There are fine white threads taut across the stage, sight-lines (of fancy). She tells her story to a translator who repeats it in (is it) Arabic, transposes more like, replaces one word with another. (We know this as another man intent on describing a painting—the atmosphere of a painting, maybe a painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, several of which have influenced the work). She asks the translator for the word for ‘bird’, but unfortunately the translator only has one for ‘aeroplane’, and so forth. It’s too late anyway for the woman, who in a hysterical/convulsive ‘state’ twists her body and voice in a horrible display of grief. The trouble is it disturbs nothing/no-one in the scene (life goes on). The translator watches passively, the other man keeps on ‘painting the picture.’ Forsythe has said, about the state of the war-state (world-wide): “Nothing changes. In several hundred years … nothing changes” (The Age, March 10).

And then, after a break, the third composition/atmosphere. A man begins to tell us about a photograph (perhaps it’s a fragment of the same painting in the previous atmosphere) of clouds, but more about the relations between parts, the ‘over-there’ and the ‘over-here.’ The event/bombing unfolds, the whole disaster. Amplified treated voices are wrenched through bodies, flesh slams into the set—a wooden structure wired for sound—and people curl into odd shapes, mutilated. A woman, our woman from atmosphere/composition 1 and 2, is now silent and passive while a sensible man/woman, in charge, at ease with the disaster explains it; it is all necessary and for the greater good, there is no other way, the sense of it is obvious (can’t you see that?), and s/he’s come ‘all this way’ to address just/you, to reassure just/you. Nevertheless, our woman rightly, in his/her presence, quietly dies. Meanwhile, the cloud-man has given us a tour of bits of bodies, buildings, and belongings catapulted (from over-there to over-here) into the scene.

The atmospheres are variations, continuations, escalations of the one atmosphere; glimpses, sections, diagrams, architectures of ruin embedded in live/dead beings. There is no lesson here, that’s the blessing. But there’s also no reluctance to ‘speak’, to make fury in the face of the permanent disaster; to make new problems, not take up those of the ‘authorities’—whoever they are, however they appear. Forsythe’s work is dark (darker and less abstract since I last saw it), his choreography confronts language, it pushes language outward, like the world—making matter that it is. This is difficult to achieve as language at every turn (having a life of its own) can trip itself up (be too readily sweet or bitter). It must be small and tight to keep its nerve, to know what it’s doing (and even then it goes to pieces) with sound and affect in the listening world.

Atmosphere is pervasive, it’s never this or that; rather, it’s this and that and multiple relations of infinite ambiences and densities. And it was so in Forsythe’s Three Atmospheric Studies; you had to choose what to watch and hear; to change focus was to forfeit this thread for that thread. You could not witness it all, you could not tell the whole story afterwards, only what you thought you had seen. One is unreliable like the next person, no amount of effort will ensure the truth. That’s the strange dilemma of telling and re-telling, of having the insolence (taking the uncool Forsythe risk) to ‘speak of it.’

To make a work that functions equally on several performing registers—movement, theatre, sound, voice, design—with edges of humour, intellect and poetry as well as a politic that knows what it hates, requires an ensemble of skilled dancers who are more than dancers. Timing was critical, delicacy was exquisite, and the heavy hand of ‘what it means’ washed throughout yet never erased actual endurance (on the plane of real-life, and on the plane of ‘I love to dance’ in a field of utterance—sensation). Here, more should be said about the company of dancers and about individual dancers (and about William Forsythe), but the work’s power is at the limits of these; it resides in what seems a philosophy of dance, that as time, in time, is a sort of simultaneity of realms.

The Forsythe Company, Three Atmospheric Studies, choreographer, William Forsythe; Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival, March 12-16

RealTime issue #72 April-May 2006 pg. 33

© Linda Marie Walker; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2006