Sunday, May 3, 2009
Ellis reviews Forsythe at the Tate
Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time
The Forsythe Company
30 April 2009
Turbine Hall is vast, almost as high as it is long.
From the cafe we are guided down the long ramp, given cushions, and enter the Hall. The audience surrounds the performance space (except for a narrow 'entrance' at the far end from which the dancers come and go), and in the space there are many many plumb-lines (described as pendulums in the programme), weighted by cone-shaped metal 'heads'. They are effectively conical arrowheads, willing the lines downwards, and stopping about 30cm from the floor. Each set of (perhaps) 10 cones is connected to a puppeteer-like rig, set amongst the lighting rig.
The geometry of the space is striking, and in it the 16 dancers are already busy with that relentless angular freneticism so typical of much of Forsythe's movement. On the walls are digital clocks, counting upwards as the natural twilight filling the hall is gradually drowned out by a very simple lighting design (profiles directed as downward as the plumb-lines). The sound sparsely echoes throughout the hall: simple electronic harmonics calling and responding to each other.
The dancers are very clearly engaged with particular tasks directly related to the geometry—and movement possibilities—of the pendulums. Occasionally they brush too close to a weight, and gently correct their own 'mistake' as if they are responsible for resetting the drive of the pendulum towards stillness. At other times they very deliberately (and gently) set large areas of the weights into motion. That they are following instructions (or a 'score') is very clear, but what these instructions are does not seem important to me.
Dancers come and go, sometimes for a rest (out of sight), other times to stand and watch.
And that is it.
Over the 90 minutes (30 minutes shorter than advertised), the tone of the work barely shifts, the audience wanders about (or not), and ... that is it.
But, as in much of Forsythe's more 'formal' work (so different from Decreation for example), this deep simplicity inevitably reveals a mesmeric complexity. The drive of the weights towards stillness is framed by the dancers useless attempts to keep moving, or to resist gravity's pull to inertia. The physiological inevitability of their fatigue becomes increasingly apparent, whilst their weighted witnesses keep pulling: pulling downwards to stillness. At times, almost the entire room of weights is tilted off vertical—the slow pendulums of time—as if the dancers have made Turbine Hall itself sway to and fro. The scale and gentility of these effects is remarkable.
Forsythe himself is standing behind the audience across from where I am sitting. Occasionally, he calls a dancer over (or even off the performance space), gives instructions and then sends him or her back into the 'playing field'. And it is a very much like a coach calling an errant player from the field, loading him with new instructions, and firing him back 'out there'. The dramaturgy of this act is puzzling and I am still not convinced Forsythe expected to be noticed doing this. Combined with the design of the puppeteer-like structures for supporting the plumb-weights I find it hard not to think of Forsythe as a kind of Petrouchkan puppet master, willing his puppets into action, demanding that they resist the fatigue, and somehow overwhelm the relentless march of the plumb-lines towards the centre of the earth.
One more thing. At approximately 60 minutes into the performance, the building had a power surge of some kind. The music stopped, the clocks stopped, and some of the lights went out. I glanced at Forsythe at this point and he hardly skipped a beat, but the flurry of activity at the other end of the hall suggested that this was definitely not planned. It was a shame in so many ways, not least because it broke the company's play with—and the audience's meditation on—time, with their inevitably dying dance amongst, around, and against the geometry and physics of these long long arrowheads.