‘Sheer joyousness and delight’: Alison Croggon on the austere brilliance of William Forsythe’s A Quiet Evening of Dance
You could approach William Forsythe’s A Quiet Evening of Dance as a lesson. This exquisitely balanced evening of five short works begins with a kind of anatomy of Forysthe’s choreography and ends with a joyous demonstration of the work at play. Just as some books train how you how read them, this selection of works is an intruction on how to watch. But to place it as a work of pedagogy risks truncating the delight it offers.
Forsythe himself says that his goal is “to make people see ballet better”. Ballet is often placed at the opposite end of the spectrum to contemporary dance, the conservative and traditional versus the radical and new. Forsythe, who danced with the Joffrey and Stuttgart Ballets before directing the Frankfurt Ballet for two decades, disrupts this binary, bringing the movements of classical ballet into the forum of contemporary dance.
The early 20th century Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky, who is one of my favourite critics of all time, fought against the artificial separation of form and content, and insisted on the signal importance of feeling. All his life’s work was about finding a way to release “a wholeness of perception”.
In 1916 he developed his theory of ostranenie, which he said was a method of “renewing perception and representation of phenomena”. (Ostranenie later inspired Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, often misleadingly translated as the “alienation effect”.) For Shklovsky, art was about relationship – between art and the world, between the things that art brings together in its representations, between art and the people who encounter it. In making the familiar strange, it becomes a means through which we can see “the world that keeps surprising us”.
If in art we are comparing a cat with another cat, or a flower with another flower, the artistic form as such is not constructed solely in the moment of such crossbreeding; those are merely detonators for triggering much larger explosions, entryways into knowledge, explorations of the new…
Art cognises by implementing old models in new ways and creating new ones. Arts moves, transforming. It changes its methods, but the past does not cease to exist….It changes fast, changes not for the sake of change, but to impart the sensation of things in their difference through rearrangement.
A Quiet Evening of Dance might have been put together to illustrate Shklovsky’s precepts: it demands a “wholeness of perception” that traces the transformation of familiar old models into new expression. On the one hand, we are asked to observe an austere and intimate articulation of the components with which the dance makes itself – the dancers as well as the movements they create. On the other, it leads us towards a liberating freshness of perception, the sheer joyousness and delight of that central paradox of art, the rediscovery of the new.
All the dancers are credited as co-choreographers for this work, and and as this evening unfolds you can see why: amid the formal rigor of Forsythe’s movement you watch them individuate, each bringing their personal investment to Forsythe’s vision. It’s a great part of the feeling of intimacy that this work generates.
Act One, which comprehends four of the dances, has a score that’s about as minimalist as it gets: silence, “a soundtrack of birds singing” and some plinkety plonk music from Morton Feldman, a scattering of notes across a keyboard. It’s structured mainly with duets, beginning with Prologue, a pas de deux by Parvaneh Scharafali and Ander Zabala, both wearing arm-length white gloves that accentuate their arms and fingers.
This dance is a kind of spritzer that initiates themes that run through the whole program, which is structured around pas de deux, and features many of these gloves and shoes in all sorts of colours – bright orange, dayglo pink, dove blue. They bring a beauty and absurdity to the dance, a sense of flamboyant excess to the austere pallet laid out for us. It foreshadows the minimalist elements Forsythe is working with – bodies on a bare stage, the articulation of limbs – as well as the dance’s sense of intimacy and its leavening comic wit.
After the spritzer, a kind of entrée. (The meal metaphor breaks down after this). In Catalogue, Jill Johnson and Christopher Roman, in t-shirts and sweatpants, rehearse all the possible positions of arms and bodies. They move in silence aside from their breathing, which becomes louder as they exert themselves. It’s as if they’re laying out their wares, but there’s a strong sense of relationship in this dance that’s echoed later in other duets: the dancers glance at each other, copy or answer each other’s movements, move together and alone. It made me think of a couple who have been married for years, at work together in a kitchen or some other domestic space.
This is followed by Epilogue, which is placed mischievously in the middle of the evening, and the return of the gloves, this time with matching footwear. The dancers are either solo or in duet, each walking onto the bare stage as the other finishes and then stepping forward. The movements further expand the vocabulary of movement, most notably when Raud “Rubberlegz” Yasit scrolls across the stage with breakdance moves that are folded seamlessly into the larger work.
Act One finishes with Dialogue (Duo2015), a work which Forsythe created for women in 1996 and was famously was adapted for Sylvia Gillem’s farewell tour, and is here readapted again for two men, Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts. Performed to the sound of birdsong, this time the dancers’ breathing acts as percussion. This dance – playful, absorbing and deeply complex in how it creates and breaks relationship and movement – opens a sense of release that blossoms through Act Two.
When you return after interval for Seventeen/Twenty One, there is suddenly music: not only that, it’s utterly lush excerpts from Jean-Phillipe Rameau’s most famous opera, Hippolyte et Aricie. Rameau was one of the leading French composers of the 18th century. In his own time Rameau caused a scandal for his radical use of harmony, and wrote the handbook on composing music using major and minor scales, deriving his rules, in true Enlightenment fashion, from universal principles. He was the first person to codify the theory of tonality, and his theories dominated music composition for the following two centuries.
In Seventeen/Twenty One, we see the whole company at work in a series of dances punctuated by blackouts: solos, duets, trios, chorus works, each intertwining in a playful and joyous mathematics of choreography. The gloves and shoes feature all through the dances. It’s as if the rigour and intensity of the first act is at once released and jumped up a few notches: we see all the movements we watched earlier, now sewn into some explicitly classical sequences that break and reform, lightened by Rameau’s delicious harmonies. It simultaneously reaches back to the origin of ballet, as a court dance during the realm of Louis XIV, and forward to its place in the present day. It’s just glorious.
A Quiet Evening of Dance, choreographed by William Forsythe with dancers Brigel Gjoka, Jill Johnson, Christopher Roman, Parvaneh Scharafali, Riley Watts, Rauf “Rubberlegz” Yasit and Ander Zabala. Lighting design by Tanja Rühl and William Forsythe, costume design by Costume design by Dorothee Merg and William Forsythe, sound design by Niels Lanz, production assistant Robin Aren. State Theatre at Arts Centre Melbourne for Melbourne International Festival of the Arts. Until October 20. Bookings
Some background music and/or sounds
Wheelchair accessible event
Sound amplification systems available