William Forsythe’s A Quiet Evening of Dance: A Meditative Choreographic Act
- By Mark Franko
This fall Peter Brook presented Why?, a play-as-conversation between three actors in which they reflect intellectually and performatively in deftly sketched scenes on theater-making from the actor’s perspective. This chamber work, composed of discussions about the actor’s craft, is directed in part toward the audience with no lack of enlightening, whimsical, and sometimes quite moving illustrations. Why? is a theoretical and historical brief on theater’s infinite possibilities and mortal dangers, a fit addition to the distinguished career of Peter Brook, which now spans seven decades. In the play’s background, coming increasingly into focus, is the tragic history of the great Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold, the creator of biomechanics, a movement training system for actors. The question of the title concerns not only why we do theater, but also why Meyerhold referred to it as a “dangerous weapon.” Why was Stalin compelled to destroy Meyerhold? In the 1930s, of course, some politically radical New York City dance was also called a “weapon.”
I bring up the Brook production here because it seems to me that William Forsythe, although younger than Brook, has also been reflecting of late on important themes of his long and productive choreographic career. A contemporary dance artist of comparable significance to twentieth-century ballet, Forsythe recently presented A Quiet Evening of Dance, a choreographic reflection on his engagement with ballet over the last fifty years (The Shed, October 11-25, 2019). With A Quiet Evening of Dance, the choreographer has returned to his earlier preoccupation with ballet as a contemporary but also historically informed choreographic language. The beauty in reviewing artists of this stature and history is that one is given the opportunity to reflect on each new piece in the body of the larger oeuvre, in dialogue with what preceded as well as with the art form more generally. The framework of criticism is in this way significantly enlarged.
That Forsythe would engage in a chamber work—that is, a work presupposing an intimate proximity and relation to the audience for a small number of players in a space facilitating personal reflection—makes sense for a ballet that addresses our intellect as well as our senses. Forsythe began the evening by explaining to the audience the reasons for the “quiet” nature of the performance. This was due in part to what would be the relative absence of music and the need to listen attentively to the dancers’s breathing as their own aural accompaniment. When music is initially used, it is in the most unobtrusive way with minimalist composer Morton Feldman. Forsythe’s engaging request to turn off cell phones also served to initiate a personal relation to the public on the choreographer’s part, in the service of the work’s poetics. In fact, it facilitated our entry into that poetic realm, through the gentle tones of the choreographer’s voice. In Three Atmospheric Studies at Brooklyn Academy of Music (2007), Forsythe experimented with the amplification of breath as part of the work’s soundscape; he did the same for You Made me a Monster (in a studio space at Baryshnikov Arts Center in 2007). I have also seen him intervene in a performance when there was a technical glitch, asking the dancers to regroup as he explains the matter to the audience. Forsythe is always present and engaged in the performance of his work and part of the experience of it is to hear his remarks as a kind of metatext.
Initially with a small cast of five dancers (although, after an injury, a larger cast was brought in), each role is highly demanding and the skills called upon bespeak a long acquaintance with Forsythe’s work. That dancers are adept at Improvisation Technologies is illustrated by the CD-ROM which Forsythe produced in order to explain how ballet knowledge could be put to work, extending its principles to novel kinds of physical relationships and movement logics. If biomechanics was Meyerhold’s way to open up the deeply physical task of the actor, movement technologies have been Forsythe’s way to acknowledge the cognitive capacities of the dancer. Anyone who has followed his work since Improvisation Technologies knows that from this point on his choreography gained the potential no longer to look like ballet in any conventional sense while still requiring the skills and acumen of the ballet-trained dancer. In this sense, improvisation technologies are a kind of reversed biomechanics for the ballet dancer.
The work is constructed primarily of duets and trios. “Prologue,” danced by Parvaneh Scharafali and Ander Zabala, is a very energetic pas de deux. Brightly colored gloves sheath arms and hands, making them stand out from the rest of the body. At moments rapid movement creates afterimage streaks in the air. Right from the start we are given a gestural lens through which to view classical dancing in lieu of the habitual focus on the extension of the legs in the air.
In the second duet, “Catalogue,” for Jill Johnson and Britt Rosemund, the gestural focus is more pronounced choreographically. This is, for me, the theoretical core of the work—in a sort of call and response of four hands. Britt Rosemund was particularly intense and defined in her theatrical intention. When, ultimately, ballet steps become integrated into this gestural language, one perceives them as outgrowths of gesture itself. As the upper body gains prominence over the legs, one notes the reconciliation of the ballet tradition with modernism while avoiding neoclassicism as the default position. In other words, the locomotion of ballet is recuperated, but without transcendence in the sense of a spiritual afflatus produced by the aesthetic effect. With this new turn to gesturality (one that ultimately melds with the distinctive use of the arms and hands in the Baroque dance aesthetics of the French school, shown later in the piece), the classical movement vocabulary is underscored as fundamentally communicative, responsive, and generative of movement that ultimately entails the lower body and dynamic movement through space. Here, the Baroque plays the role of a counterpoint to the neoclassical. Once the legs follow suit, introducing recognizable ballet vocabulary, one is induced to perceive the more familiar balletic perambulations as the extensions, consequences, or outcomes of both period and contemporary gesture. A fourth-position lunge, a sisonne leap, or arms held above the head in couronne themselves appear to be quotidian gestures. Dance is a social act, and as such is not elevated to an idealist sphere but rather rendered more contemporary and more necessary through its socially behavioral traits themselves. The very idea of the Baroque enables us to see the social and theatrical in the same gesture and thus, paradoxically, Forsythe’s historicization of balletic gesture lends itself to a contemporary everyday reading. A certain everydayness, even democratization, of the classical body emerges in these instants.
But, what is most striking is Forsythe’s use of dance as an analytic tool to think about dance itself. This is the poetics which I referred to above, a poetics that requires silence to reflect upon and that manifests itself in a kind of choreographic and performative meditation. And it is an extension of Forsythe’s earlier work in several senses. Rather than defamiliarizing balletic gesture by rendering it violently confrontational, Forsythe now allows it to be quietly dialogic. The tension is in making this quiet reflectiveness energized and dynamic, in its ability to command our gaze at every instant, and I would attribute any unevenness to the daring of this challenge.
These are the terms, then, within which the work develops by exploring gesture as the motor of movement—until it encounters properly Baroque gesture as rediscovered by Catherine Turocy and Francine Lancelot in the 1980s. The work explodes in the final section, “Seventeen/Twenty One,” to the music of Jean-Philippe Rameau. Forsythe gives a historical dimension to this exploration, one that is more specific than that pertaining to ballet in contemporary consciousness, which has been transmitted through the twentieth-century legacy of neoclassicism. This is what loops A Quiet Evening back to Forsythe’s earlier work.
Starting with the evening-length ballet Artifact in 1984, William Forsythe undertook what can only be called a philosophical and movement analysis of the conventions of classical ballet in the framework of choreography. The evening-length Artifact did nothing less than interrogate the how and why of ballet spectacle, using references to the seventeenth century in costuming, the playful use of movement as sign, a self-conscious awareness of the proscenium stage setup, a spoken text of language games, and the deployment of large masses of dancers and striking movement invention in duets and quartets. The partnering substituted violent relationships for Balanchinian post-Romanticism. While in Artifact Forsythe dealt with spectacle and pushed the spectacular to the limit with a massive corps de ballet, the framework of A Quiet Evening is that of a chamber piece. As a result, we can also see in it a greater attention than previously to the elements of Baroque dance vocabulary of the upper body. To do this, Forsythe builds to some degree on choreographic situations experimented with in the interim: the same-sex couple mirroring each other, dancers breathing as soundscape (Three Atmospheric Studies), and structured improvisation itself as typified by One Flat Thing Reproduced (2008). Perhaps one of Forsythe’s last neoclassical ballets was Herman Schmerman for New York City Ballet in 1992. This witty and affectionate send-up of the ballet had more thinking and working behind it than one might at first suspect. Herman Schmerman too makes us think about balletic conventions, even as it gently pokes fun at them.
Since that time, Forsythe has turned to performative installations such as Human Writes (2005), large-scale theater works such as Kammer/Kammer (2000) or Three Atmospheric Studies, and chamber works such as You Made me a Monster, many experimenting with sound production, text, the spoken word, and various forms of audience participation. It is not possible to review here even superficially the range of new preoccupations that, from the late 1990s to the present, followed upon the question of ballet per se. From this point on, Forsythe’s work took on a new look theoretically linked to ballet yet no longer visually evocative of ballet’s idealist tendencies. The improvisation technologies bypassed the need to turn pas de deux into violent confrontations in that they emptied balletic acumen of all romanticism in movement terms alone. Complementary to this shift was the idea of the choreographic object—a questioning often in the form of installations the audience was invited to participate in—of the meaning of choreography itself as an idea and a project.
A certain continuity with the choreographic object works is evident. One only needs to consider the manner in which Forsythe himself framed them when he asked: “[I]s it possible for choreography to generate autonomous expressions of its principles, a choreographic object, without the body?” In A Quiet Evening, it appears that Forsythe is combining his earlier historical and stylistic analysis of ballet spectacle with something like a theory of its history. This would be like asking: Is it possible for choreography to generate autonomous expressions of its own genealogy with (rather than without) the body . . .?” Hence, it is no longer a question of interrogating principles in order to wrest a new movement language from them, but one of choreographing the historical genesis of this language itself in movement. This is tantamount to positing that choreography itself is a historically self-reflective act. Having taken ballet apart, he is now putting it back together again: the difference being that it will never be the same. Ballet will continue to inspire and excite, but differently.
When a dance critic of The New York Times writes: “ . . . [T]here’s just not enough transcendence,” does she presume to know what constitutes transcendence and how much is enough for us? Is she looking for a transcendent subject detached from the genealogy of social interaction? As is well known, the transcendental signified is not Forsythe’s quarry. Forsythe writes: “Each epoch, each instance of choreography, is ideally at odds with its previous defining incarnations as it strives to testify to the plasticity and wealth of our ability to reconceive and detach ourselves from positions of certainty.” Yet, it would seem the critic is calling for the old idealism of ballet as the transcendental signifier of grace. Forsythe has enriched our understanding of ballet by bringing it back down to earth while still celebrating its visceral excitement and eye-catching theatricality. A Quiet Evening is an attempt to reconcile ballet spectacle with its social and, indeed theoretical, origins. Like Peter Brook, Forsythe asks “Why?” and the answers he comes up with are fully affirmative of ballet itself. A Quiet Evening of Dance is a Gradus ad Parnassum for our time, one that no longer instructs us how to mount heavenward but instead leads us more deeply into our own humanity.
MARK FRANKO is the Laura H. Carnell Professor of Dance at Boyer College of Music and Dance, Temple University. His latest book, The Fascist Turn in the Choreography of Serge Lifar: French Interwar Dance and the German Occupation, is forthcoming at Oxford University Press
 William Forsythe, “Choreographic Objects,” in Suspense (Zurich: JRP/Ringier, 2008), 5.
 Gia Kourlas, “Best Heard with Both Ears and Eyes,” in The New York Times (October 14, 2019), C2.