Seeing the ballets William Forsythe has contributed to various American companies is no substitute for watching the dancers in his own Ballett Frankfurt define his thornily intellectual structures. In the dazzling full-evening Eidos: Telos, shown at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the neoclassical vocabulary, passed through a distorting lens, achieves a Dionysian fervor. The performers— all of whom contribute to the choreographic process— fragment learned material, run it backward, challenge one body part to tackle movement designed for another. Imagine every instrument in a chamber orchestra simultaneously performing a slightly different variation on a theme.
Yet, although Eidos: Telos fosters dissonance and disequilibrium, it’s never totally chaotic. When 23 people throng the stage in Part III, sudden congruities lead the eye through the seething activity: now these two are in sync, now these three. The dancing itself seems etched on crystal.
Eidos: Telos unfolds in darkness pierced by harsh beams of light. A couple of immense rectangular lamps are ensnared in a web of wires. Two thick cords, stretched across the stage at waist height, thrum when plucked. In Part I, a sextet for Christine Bürkle, Jacopo Godani, Francesca Harper, Tamás Moritz, Antony Rizzi, and Andrea Tallis, a digital clock runs both ways, and analog clocks (one for each dancer?) work on separate times. Violinist Maxim Franke’s electrified instrument adds its howls to electronic hell. Three trombonists, like the three fates, make occasional deadly forays into Thom Willems’s apocalyptic score.
In Part II, Forsythe and his dancers dissect the myth of Persephone, and all traces of Apollonian coolness are swallowed by a terrifying vision. In a tour de force of acting and dancing, Dana Caspersen, bare-breasted and trailing a long orange silk skirt draped over a bustle, emits a stream of words— gasping them out, gulping them down. Caspersen based her frantic soliloquy on passages from Roberto Calasso’s brilliant disquisition on myth, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. This is Persephone as spider, burrowing into earth, voraciously miring herself in darkness. On all fours, amid electronic roar, she works her loins like a copulating dog, then speaks into a sudden silence filling with birdsong: “I weave a vast, delicate blossoming.” In this Hades, where the long-skirted dead waltz ceaselessly, individuals briefly relive the past. A woman directs a camera crew. A man groans, “You’re fucking dead, man,” and follows this with a string of impossibly grisly threats.
After Part III, vibrating with increasing tension, has risen to its climax, the fading light lingers on Caspersen; naked, dragging her skirt, she advances. Forsythe made this astonishing work not long after he lost his young wife, dancer Tracey-Kai Maier. In it, as in the ancient Eleusinian Mysteries, coming to terms with the processes of death— disintegration, dissolution, return to earth— regenerates life.
At the kitchen, Splayed Mind Out, a more modestly scaled production by Meg Stuart, also explores distortions, deconstructs linearity, and crackles with intellect. Tellingly, Stuart’s Brussels-based company is called Damaged Goods; her pieces deal with vulnerability, awkwardness, and incoherence. Splayed Mind Out, obsessively intimate, draws our attention to subtle shifts in posture or to small areas of the body.
The work, a close collaboration between Stuart and video artist Gary Hill, challenges our eyes. The light, broken by intermittent white flashes, is so dim at first that it takes a while to identify the dark lump on the floor as three people, or to see that the pale shapes floating on video monitors are their limbs or heads slowly, raggedly pushing outward. A video screen fills with a blotched pinkish expanse. It’s the bare back of the woman who kneels beside the monitor, her shoulder blades performing an ungainly dance. While she struggles to write on her back, rub out the letters, write again, Hill, sitting downstage, dissects language, pausing in mid word, talking backward.
Every act, however pedestrian, seems skewed, difficult. Flesh becomes mysterious; an elbow prodded with fingers and transported to a monitor looks like a pallid giant raisin. Solemnly, the seven performers explore the minutiae of one another’s bodies. How do you write on somebody’s arm when your head is lying on it? How effective is it to talk into somebody’s foot? In one of several stationary duets, Stuart pulls up Hill’s shirt, plucks up a fold of his skin big enough to make a shelf, and rests her chin on it. He leans forward and takes a wisp of her short hair in his mouth. No one reacts to any of these invasions. The piece is rife with irony: an immaculate, elegantly formal structure expresses the complete breakdown of language in relation to meaning, of action in relation to its consequences.
Forsythe presses mind and body into unforeseen alignments, and the result seems vibrant with optimism. Stuart’s controlled vision of mind and body coming apart is tenderer and more rueful. Having them both in town the same week tuned our minds a notch tighter.