“A pack of bodies raging with alacrity, whipping razor-like in perilous weaves, in a hurt-ling intelligence,” say the program notes for Ballett Frankfurt’s BAM performances. Written by Dana Casperson, a dancer in the company and wife to its director-choreographer William Forsythe, the notes echo in style the density and high-wattage contrariness of the choreography and imply something about Forsythe’s process. Thom Willems’s music—sometimes ferocious, sometimes barely audible—gives the astonishing dancers few cues; as a result, they’re so alert to events around them that you can believe they’re improvising on learned material or choosing which of many phrases to perform.
The American-born Forsythe—who resigned from his position in Frankfurt not long after the city’s attempt to fire him was aborted by a worldwide storm of supportive e-mails—brought no dance theater spectacles this time. Four pieces, dating from 1996 to 2002, focus on his explosive deconstruction of ballet—knocking the classically trained body off its Apollonian verticality into something that’s not exactly Dionysian (too sharp-edged for that), but that creates an aura of risky, assertive, obstreperous behavior. The rhythms call up Jackie Chan: dizzying displays followed by strike and freeze.
The Room as It Was (2002) introduces the Forsythian image of humanity. As the eight performers come and go, thrashing or worming into movement, heads cock, hips and elbows jut, backs sway, shoulders roll and hike, knees collapse, feet strike out into space (the women on pointe) either simultaneously or in rapid succession, as if the dancers were trying to direct their body parts toward various directions in space. (You can almost see the acknowledged influence of Rudolf Laban’s theory of Effort/Shape.) Both this work and One Flat Thing Reproduced (2000) have the air of machines elegantly designed to run amok. In One Flat Thing, 14 dancers rampage precisely on, under, and around a squad of 20 tables.
The smaller pieces invite a more intimate, humane viewing of Forsythe’s powerhouse dancers. In Duo (1996), working in glaring light, gorgeous Alison Brown and Jill Johnson suggest Ivy League sex workers in their black trunks and long-sleeved black net tops over bare breasts. But as they slice through their patterns—forward, backward, repeat, rest—they’re attentive to each other, as if the arduous mission depended on sisterhood. The four charming guys in the 2002 (N.N.N.N.)—Cyril Baldy, Amancio Gonzalez, Georg Reischl, and Ander Zabala—elicit chuckles as they test the weight of their arms, periodically paste their hands onto one another, and slip into a variety of mystifying tangles and bouts of athleticism.
Watching an evening of Forsythe’s sleek, urban works is like taking a stimulant. Life endlessly circles a very fast and twisty track.
A disturbing current flows through Tere O’Connor’s amazing new Lawn. In understated ways, the piece hints at our poor custodianship of the planet and of ourselves. A verdant frame of Boston fern designed by Christopher Batenhorst sets off the large screen that holds Ben Speth’s ongoing video. We first meet the performers (Caitlin Cook, Erin Gerken, Justin Jones, Heather Olson, Luis de Robles Tentindo, and O’Connor) on that screen, each performing an everyday task at home. But they appear only rarely in the lush images of rolling summer parkland that Speth juxtaposes to the ripped-up earth of construction sites, looming developments, and city streets, while James Baker’s fine score captures the changeable atmosphere.
In this strange fairy tale, O’Connor occasionally appears on-screen—his long blond wig and toothy, disapproving grimaces turning him into the witch of the woods—startled to come upon a tree abloom with plastic bags (she/he later recycles them by chopping them up, and Gerken and Tentindo, naked at table, solemnly eat them).
The dancers begin in priestly robes (costumes by Deanna Berg), stepping in grave, serene patterns; shucking the robes returns them to a more primal state. So curious are their actions that sometimes they look as if they’re trying movements for the first time, and you can also believe that their nervous systems have been polluted. They make obsessive gestures, rubbing their hands as if to remove something sticky, leaning down to pluck an invisible plant. A burst of sound makes them hold their heads and stagger. Gerken and Cook scream repeatedly, as if they’ve just found out how to do it. Cook and Olson try singing sweetly, their voices in complete discord. Even their helpful handling of one another can be clumsy. Yet although they’re often as stiff and awkward as dolls come to life, they dance in orderly patterns and attack even the wildest movement with care, as if admonishing it, “There! Now stay that way.”
Lawn progresses as an engrossing series of episodes and interludes marked out by Brian MacDevitt’s splendid lighting. People freeze while others continue moving. Questions hang in the air. Live action and video occasionally unite very directly. “All this can be yours,” say three spotlit dancers to their partners, each sweeping an arm across an imaginary vista. That never happens again, but taped images of housing developments keep eating up the grass.
At the end, four stand in silence staring down at Cook and Jones lying in identical, uncomfortably askew poses. Are they debris? Under a spell? Will they awaken or just sink into the earth? Letting us not being sure is part of O’Connor’s power.