[dance-tech] 3 Atmospheric Studies/Compositions

  • From: "Johannes Birringer" <Johannes.Birringer@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <dance-tech@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Thu, 19 Oct 2006 20:17:19 +0100

here is the critical text from the Forsythe program catalogue:

The Forsythe Company

Three Atmospheric Studies
Part I + II     Clouds after Cranach
Part III          Study III

Desastres de la Guerra
Peter Michalzik

Political content, which has almost fully disappeared from the theatre, can 
appear in unexpected places. Three Atmospheric Studies is, to my mind, an 
example of the most political intervention and position-taking currently on 
offer in the theatre. Impossible?  How can a piece by a choreographer often 
seen as an aesthete express basic truths about some of the most pressing 
conflicts of our times?  How can Tanztheater morph into the political at all? 
Can dance really hold its own ? fundamentally, not merely by making use of 
allusion or reference ? when it comes to today?s complex political realities?

For years, political art (and not just in the theatre) has proven wanting, The 
contexts have become so complicated that art addressing political subjects has 
either seemed overly simplified ? especially when it has not shied away from 
taking a stand ? or undermuscled and pale, since it has not pressed on into the 
moral dimensions necessary to adequately consider and depict political subject 
matter. At best it has been witty, an apercu that briefly accords us a feeling 
of freedom.

Three Atmospheric Studies consists of three parts that are referred to as 
?compositions.?   First come compositions 1 to 3; the fourth is a crucifixion 
scene by the painter Lukas Cranach, with the fifth being a modern-day press 
agency photograph depicting an exploding landscape in the Middle East. Both 
pictures can be seen hanging in the foyer during the performances. Compositions 
4 and 5 correlate, to the extent that Cranach?s thunderhead ? not just a 
metereological phenomenon, but a divine, biblical act as well ? can also be 
seen as rising from the detonation in the photograph. Here we see the 
underlying structure that informs all of the evening?s compositions, throughout 
which a single scene repeats itself on multiple levels. Bringing these 
repetitions into alignment is the main challenge confronting the viewer. 

In contrast to the theatre?s other creative talents, Forsythe is almost always 
present when his company performs and is constantly altering what happens on 
stage. Three Atmospheric Studies radicalizes this principle, given that the 
piece has evolved considerably, having gone through a number of iterations.

With the exception of one sentence,  Composition 1 is completely silent. ?My 
son was arrested,? says dancer Jone San Martin, pointing to her child. By 
virtue of his red t-short, the son remains easily identifiable as he moves 
among the other less-conspicuously clad performers.  In the troupe?s movements, 
gestures and images of an explosion and of the son?s arrest can be discerned, 
and the boy?s flow of movement repeatedly ends in the arms of two ?police 
officers.?  As the movement freezes, those so inclined will perceive stills of 
one, two or three scenes:  an explosion, an arrest, and the horrified 
recognition of incoming rockets ? tattered snapshots from the unending flow of 
war-time imagery. 

The flow of movement constantly grows in agitation; the dancers? ever more 
audible breathing seems a sort of musical score. In the work?s first version, 
the movement?s fluidity was paramount, and the dancers gave the impression of 
being loaded, self-charging particles in the centre of a storm cloud ? an 
?atmospheric study? in the most literal sense. War, the explosions in the 
Middle East ? to give one interpretation ? can be viewed as manifestations of a 
great cosmological aggressiveness and potency. In the final work, this aspect 
has receded into the background, although it remains present, in favour of the 
boy?s capture, which then persists as a defining moment: My son was arrested.

The complexity increases in the second composition. The mother sits opposite an 
interpreter, who is supposed to translate her account of the events into 
Arabic. Their efforts are meant to make the proceedings official. Thus, the 
mother considers it important to make herself understood, and the translating 
then evolves into the focal point, with the interpreter, who gradually 
relinquishes his neutral stance, taking on the key role. At first both mother 
and translator agree to proceed as precisely a possible, word for word. ?My 
son,? she begins.
?Ibni,? he translates, explaining with over-exactness that he has to unite the 
two words, ?my? and ?son.?  What follows starts to spin out of the mother?s 
control, with the interpreter accusing her of being unfocused and the mother 
soon suspecting that his view of the entire situation is incorrect.

This scene, one of increasing alienation and uproar, is underscored by a box 
next to the mother, from which a whining, accusing tone emanates, a tone that 
might arise from the centre of her being were she not suppressing it. At the 
same time, the scene is interrupted by another dancer, David Kern. He traces 
lines across the stage that define the artistic vanishing points of the fourth 
and fifth compositions, embellishing the set with the perspective chosen by 
Cranach and recorded in the war-scene photo. He then describes an apartment 
building, an overturned automobile, the cloud rising from an explosion; within 
Composition 2, Kern is depicting Composition 5. During the time that the 
dispute between the mother and interpreter devolves into an open fight, he 
describes Composition 4: the mother wailing at the foot of the cross. The 
mother onstage reacts with indignation; she claims she is not part of the fifth 
composition, but belongs to Composition 1 instead. She is not the figure of the 
mother eternally bewailing her loss, the icon of the conflict; her story is 
concretely defined. She insists that a truth exists that can be ascertained, 
that something happened to her son which can be explained.

The event that was presented as realm in Composition 1 becomes inherently 
intangible; it withdraws. This is the central movement in Forsythe?s political 
theatre: the happening happens, we imagine it, we create an image of it. But 
through this the process also fades, becoming essentially incomprehensible. 
Thus, Forsythe?s composition touches on the key experience to be had in a 
media-based world: all of the globe?s catastrophes are accessible, yet they 
remain remote; all conflicts are open to the public, but they have become 

The visualization of an impalpable process ? which remains constantly present 
with all its painful consequences, thanks to both San Martin?s performance and 
the sounds reverberating from the box ? serves Forsythe well, allowing him to 
illuminate the contrast between pain and intangibility. With Three Atmospheric 
Studies, Forsythe?s theatre makes clear the loss of ?real? war, which, since 
the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union or, at the latest, the first 
Gulf War, has characterized the political education of a generation of 
television viewers. Only here, in experiencing loss, are real-world happenings 
again substantial, happenings we know constantly take place, despite their 
diffuseness. This ?sense-ability? is not achieved through association or 
empathy or identification; it results from the discrepancy between the feelings 
of loss and the knowledge that ensues by layering one composition into the next.

In the third composition, Kern describes a cloud formation, using the voice of 
a weather announcer or an evening-news expert. While he is performing, the 
dancers again evoke a series of explosions. What?s more, they crash against the 
wall, which, with technical enhancement, resounds with the din of war. The 
mother sits abject in front of the wall. All of the happening?s diverse levels 
splay apart, visible for everyone to see. 

One character now makes tangible the disparateness of war and suffering, a 
fundamental helplessness: Dana Caspersen speaks to the mother as a U.S. 
soldier, using an accent from the American South. She explains that despite the 
tragic personal consequences, what happened was in order, that there is no 
reason for alarm ? words we recognize. Here we have a bitter indictment against 
the scorn of those situated in superior positions. And, even worse, this is the 
voice that acts as if it has everything under control, even in a shattered 
reality where action, knowledge, sight, feeling and suffering no longer 
constitute and can no longer constitute a whole.

The cause of suffering mocks the victims. War guffaws at our expense. And 
claims reason as its own. On the one hand, there is a huge gap between this and 
Goya?s Desastres de la Guerra:  Forsythe is an intellectual artist who 
approaches feeling through formal assemblages. And yet, a deep kinship makes 
itself evident between the erstwhile Spanish painter who portrayed war?s 
horrors and today?s choreographer of war: Both place warfare and humans in 
relationship to each other. They show the space between the two to be the space 
in which power runs wild. They strip war down to the truth.  Three Atmospheric 
Studies shows us our desastres de la guerra.

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