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The Desperate Calculus of William Forsythe in 'Decreation'

by Tom Ferraro

Oct. 9, 2009 -- Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, New York

William Forsythe is considered one of dances’ towering figures, having redefined classical ballet for the 21st century. This American legend, living in Germany for the last 32 years, has won the Bessie Award four times (1988, 1998, 2004, 2007), the French Commandeur des Arts et Lettres (1999), London’s Laurence Olivier Award (1992, 1999, 2009) and the German Distinguished Service Cross in 1997. Knowing all this, I was more then a little curious about William Forsythe and his company.

Forsythe was born and raised in New York City, and after a brief stint dancing with the Joffrey Ballet in New York, he headed to Germany where he has been choreographing his entire adult career.  He was Resident Choreographer for the Stuttgart Ballet for 7 years, and then Director for Ballet Frankfurt for the next 20 years. This led to his forming the William Forsythe Company, residing in Frankfurt for the last 5 years.

“Deceation” was performed at the BAM Next Wave Festival from Oct. 7-10th 2009. It has its world premiere in 2004, was inspired by an essay on love by American poet Ann Carson, and uses music by David Morrow. It is best described as a theater movement piece rather then a ballet. The stage was darkly lit and had a table, some mics, a video camera and screen. The full company of 18 dancers were positioned in seats or in poses randomly spaced around the stage. It started out with a woman behind a podium having an argument with herself about the anguish and jealousy found in love. She acted out two parts, both the man and woman. As the dance evening unfolded, I could see Forsythe was presenting many themes about conflict: men fought woman; sound fought movement; German words fought English; light fought darkness; the soul fought reason; music battled dance; video juxtaposed reality;  love fought with hatred; and trust was against jealousy. Many battles, much sadness and much grief and a total lack of harmony, beauty or joy. The last segment had the dancers seated around a round table with a fire underneath while female dancer writhed in pain on the table top covered in soot.  It reminded me of someone being burned in an oven.  This was how it ended.

On the drive home, I wondered what his intention in this piece was. I think many Americans expect to be engaged with beauty when they attend a dance performance, and this includes me. Beauty was the farthest thing from Forsythe’s mind when he created or decreated this piece. It reminded me of Gerhard Richter’s oil canvases which were first painted and then squeegeed and smeared so the beauty is gone from the surface. This is what Forsythe did. He took his beautiful and talented dancers and insisted they writhe and move in deformed and grotesque ways the entire show. How does one deconstruct all this?

I recall reading a book entitled “The Inability to Mourn” by Mitscherlich and Mitscherlich. These two German psychoanalysts felt that the German nation was headed for trouble because it never mourned the shame and guilt of having permitted the Third Reich to destroy six million innocents during World War II.

How else does one explain “Decreation?” The intention of this piece was clearly about shame and guilt and torment. And the torment that was shown was far worse then what is commonly felt in love and betrayal. I think the best way to explain the intent of this piece is to say that Forsythe and his dancers have successfully channeled German guilt and shame. In a way, it is similar to a Pina Bausch piece with all her chaos and despair. But he has taken this theme further, and left us with nothing but pure ugliness and confusion to ponder. I think artists are very capable of doing this kind of unconscious channeling of the torment and problems of a particular culture. Forsythe has lived in Germany for the last 32 years, and being an American, he may have enough cultural distance to face their pain and display it to them full force.

The title of the piece means part destruction and part creation. First you produce something, and then you erase it -- an undoing of all joy and goodness to atone for the sins of the fathers. Guilt is always an unconscious thing, yet I felt it strongly, although I have not read a single dance review that talks about German guilt as a way to explain this painful piece of dance.  The desperate calculus of William Forsythe is really something to behold. Just don’t expect to see much beauty when you get there. You will be looking into the soul of a nation still in grief and in mourning. The sins of the father die very hard indeed.

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This article was originally published in Dance Review Magazine


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