Wake up, Australia!

Rachel Fensham: William Forsythe, Eidos:Telos

Ballett Frankfurt, Eidos:Telos

Ballett Frankfurt, Eidos:Telos

Ballett Frankfurt, Eidos:Telos

After Ballett Frankfurt’s production Eidos:Telos, the radio and popular press ran hysterical with moral outrage. They claimed it was ‘not classical ballet, too difficult, too noisy, its disturbing images not suitable for children, a cultural decline, too intellectual, wilful obscurantism’ etc. The Governor’s wife registered a protest of obscenity and many audience members walked out either because of the sound or use of ‘foul language’. In Paris in 1913, a similar reception was given to the first performance by The Ballets Russes of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Nearly 100 years later in Melbourne, even the mainstream critics have failed to communicate the extraordinary achievement of Ballett Frankfurt and choreographer William Forsythe. Eidos:Telos reconstructs ballet as a serious contemporary artform, registering the pulse of the present through the technologies of its craft.

To begin with, Eidos:Telos alerted our tired senses to feeling. My hair stood on end for the sheer tension of watching line upon line of dancers walk towards a taut wire stretched the width of the open stage, only to fall away, be repelled or finally pluck the chord into deep vibration. And I held my breath to see a woman, actress Dana Casperson, whose whispered concourse with the underworld of the spider leads her to unwind a length of golden cellophane—that was glorious gown, violent crackling sound, ball of sun wrapped against the light. From the back of the throat she growls “I’m lucky, I’m lucky, I’m lucky”, only to abandon the paper and herself to a chaotic unravelling. In fury, she enacts the feminine myths of rape, madness and recovery.

What kind of vision are we present at here? In Frankfurt for a day in March, I found myself in the studio of the Frankfurt Opera watching Forsythe in rehearsal with his dancers. He was realigning sections of a larger work that I discovered later was Eidos:Telos, with different pairs, trios or larger groups. Each group worked on the vocabulary of the phrase before shaping it on the floor. There was a mood of dispersed concentration, with him watching, shifting, making contact, touching, repeating, adding, refining the details of their movement. Even those not dancing were calm and focused, exchanging notes, joining in with quiet laughter. Like all dancers there was a functional aspect to their preparation. Certain choreographic principles emerged—asymmetry, independent articulation of body parts, incomplete rotations, fall and catch—and always the twists through the torso, folds guided by a hand gesture leading to a hip rotation and back out through an awkward bend in the leg. This quality of torque, what Hillel Schwartz calls the “new kinaesthetic of the twentieth century” (J Cracy and S Kwinter eds, Zone 6: Incorporations) operates as both an ideal for new kinaesthetic experiences and a critique of those ideals. Extended torque, in a Forsythe ballet, can flow on any plane and in 2 or more directions simultaneously like the double helix. I see his dancers in Melbourne as exceptional performers of the dynamic shape of DNA. In rehearsal, he asks them to find a way that is not ‘overprepared’—hands like wings, fingers curling and stretching like a baby’s grasping at air—the primary extensions of the body emerge into the icosahedron of the kinesphere. The floor patterns are off-centre, diagonal, forward movement always being drawn back, one dancer always out of step, off to one side. I write in my diary that the quality of his dancers and the rehearsal is patient attention, in the dance I see an eccentricity kept in check by precision.

Eidos:Telos is a work in 3 parts; the first section, Self Meant to Govern, is dominated by time—clocks all over the stage and the formality of well-tempered gesture. The rigours of ballet training exemplify the impossible will of the human being to master the self against the forces of destruction, the future. A violinist, Maxim Franke, goads the dancers with intense vibrato and lots of scratching. In one trio, the male dancer tries to keep up with the spinning of the 2 women, his arms flicker above his head like an arrow aquiver. The strings are nearly breaking, the woman stops him from playing. The relief is painful. Part II with the actress and a chorus of long skirts is concerto form: multi-focal, deeply layered, climactic and never-ending. Part III reprises Part I but enters with 3 trombones. Throughout, the sound score of Tom Willems has been relentless, its saturation of space suspends the apprehension of sensibility. Christian Metz writes of the autonomous realm of “aural objects” (Yale French Studies, 1980) and I have this experience with this music; it is not before or after or illustration of the dancing, it is, at first listening, a phenomenology. So, as the trombones repeat their muted blasts, I hear guns exploding, planes crashing from the sky, bodies thundering to the ground, the wind crying. It is the end of time and it is now. The dancers fold around each other, seemingly smaller here than before but still more of them.

Why is it that reviewers tried to contain this event within the defensive parameters of known territory? Is territory what we struggle over? Forsythe is not making art from within the confines of 19th century ballet, nor of modern dance, nor dance theatre nor postmodern dance. As a contemporary artist he can appropriate all these traditions if he so wishes—deconstruct and reconstruct them in new and different combinations. He is allowed to do this, this is what composition involves. I knew Ballett Frankfurt, first and second-hand, having seen in Paris in 1998 his comic tribute to musical theatre, and observed the Leigh Warren and Australian Ballet translations of his choreography. These earlier works gave me only a partial sense of his oeuvre, emphasising either the radical displacement of stage focus or the realignment of the technical body. But his art goes further—Forsythe’s choreography is not directly or literally about the human as subject of dance. We do not have to reproduce archetypes on the stage any more, we do not have to make pretty pictures, we do not have to tell individual stories. Theatre and film gave that up mid last century and so did dance, although Australia may be slow to realise. When pressed in interview, Forsythe talks of starting points for Eidos:Telos arising from Beckett, the death of his wife, the films of Russian director Tarkovsky, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony and the myth of Persephone. But these intertextual narratives do not and have not made this ballet. Choreographers, since Merce Cunningham, have often composed with structures that use unpredictable elements of movement, series, reversal and iteration. Indeed, a contemporary ballet can examine abstract principles, such as how quantum physics is organised or the ways in which clouds travel through the sky.

Postmodern formations of bodies, even where ballet is the disciplinary structure, can hover between stillness and the micro-visibility of flow. And so we see in Eidos:Telos a 6/8 swinging of 50 bodies in coloured silk skirts, swooshing, lilting backwards and forwards. They are dresses sweeping the floor, they are arms swinging in unison, they are turning, turning like flowers towards the sun. In Australian dance we almost never see that number of dancers filling a stage with polyrhythms. We are not prepared for this moment of sheer beauty, however it does not last and cannot. We must relinquish the possibility of transcendence and domination, especially since September 11. There is already something wrong with the pattern, a dancer breaks away, there is someone speaking a foreign language. One dancer turns against another and then another turns against another and then there are more and more who break step. There is a man swearing, he is in Hell. He tells us his nightmares, we hear them vividly, they are repugnant but so then is death, is dying, in the face of the rhythm of life.

Eidos:Telos was a work of great passion, intensely vocal—dancing bodies in defiance against a taut string. Without choreography that challenges old precepts and moves across boundaries, ballet will ossify and collapse. Wake up, Australia!

Eidos:Telos, choreography William Forsythe, text Dana Casperson, Ballett Frankfurt, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne,
Oct 17-21

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 7

© Rachel Fensham; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2001