Giannandrea Poesio

Dance: William Forsythe’s new work is choreographic narcissism

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As someone who once raved about William Forsythe’s innovative approach to ballet and fondly admired his groundbreaking choreographic explorations, I felt let down by last week’s performance by his company at Sadler’s Wells.

Things did not start badly, though. The way gestural solutions unfold and develop in a crescendo of movement variables, variants, similes and opposites in N.N.N.N. (2002) is rather engaging. The game of quick interaction between four male dancers moves rapidly from the simplest hand movement to demanding acts of powerful physicality; there are humorous moments and tense ones, as well affectionate references to the neoclassical oeuvre of George Balanchine — whom Forsythe has often referred to as a major source of inspiration. Unfortunately, what starts as an intriguing idea laced with humour, inventiveness and a good dose of unpredictability soon turns into a reiteration of guessable formulae. In the end, if the work manages to elicit applause it is because of the bravura of its interpreters and its merciful brevity — a quality that is increasingly rare in modern-day dance-making.

Like N.N.N.N., the 2012 Study #3 focuses on movement possibilities generated by the simplest of actions. The newer creation explores the relationship between movement and sound. In N.N.N.N. the dancers move to the rhythmical patterns of their breathing and to the noises generated by the slapping and the clashing of different body parts. In Study #3 the movement follows a kaleidoscopic combination of music, utterances and sound design.

The dance is meant to be read as a summary of compositional approaches, choreographic solutions and theatre ideas, the usage of particular props first seen or adopted in 27 previous works by Forsythe. Personally, I have never been over-impressed by this kind of self-citational work, which became fashionable in the early 1970s. What both early postmodern performance-makers and their followers wished to achieve by quoting their own creations was and still is a critique of issues relating to authorship. Yet, in most cases, all they have managed to come up with is a badly concocted and not particularly well disguised celebration of themselves. Study #3 is no exception, although it is more of an unrefined cluster of déjà-vu stuff than an exercise in choreographic narcissism. Forsythe may have been the one who first challenged the ballet canon, and the first to inject new blood into the ailing art form, but very few of his works have acquired that cultural status that grants immediate recognisability and accessibility to citations from the same — as is the case with Balanchine’s repertoire. The game of citations, therefore, has little or no impact.

This time round, not even the bravura of the interpreters saved the day, as the non-provocative and non-innovative structure and content of the piece thwarted any individual artistry. Even the reciting of verses of known poems, writings and operatic librettos failed to make an impact, and made me sorely miss the much more vibrant interactions between voice and dance found in some of Forsythe’s most memorable early creations.

My only hope is that such a disappointing programme is in no way indicative of the current state of Forsythe’s artistic vision, and that soon we will be back applauding dance creations that truly stand out. After all, even a critic can live in hope.