Watching William Forsythe’s Three Atmospheric Studies from row L situates me as close to a battlefield as I ever want to be. Except for a woman (Jone San Martin) who speaks the single sentence, “This is composition one, in which my son was arrested,” the first section of this tremendously disturbing piece could depict any war anywhere. I use the word depict because, like two images—Lucas Cranach’s 1503 painting Lamentation Beneath the Cross
and Athar Hussain’s 2005 photograph of men in the Middle East rushing a wounded person away from a fiery explosion—that are displayed in the lobby and included in the program, Forsythe’s vision of savagery and destruction is subject to compositional structuring and layering. Formal principles increase the tension as well as the confusion about what is seen and remembered amid catastrophe.
The only sounds are of bodies thudding against the floor and the grunts and whimpers of the performers as they rush around—entangling, grasping, falling, rising—and their escalating breathing. At first, their stop-and-start groupings are almost sculptural, and, as if in a film being wound both forward and back, the act of pressing an enemy to the floor can also look like helping a comrade to rise. The same acts recur, gaining in speed. Many times, the man (Ander Zabala) who represents the son is pinioned between two others. Is this really an arrest or just an arrested moment?
Forsythe’s company is based in both Dresden and Frankfurt. His dancers come from eight different countries. As an American working in Europe, he must experience strongly the shame that many here feel for the catastrophic war begun by the U.S. In the piece’s second and third parts he gets more specific. The mother explains her son’s actions to an official (Amancio Gonzalez) sitting behind a littered table. He translates her words into Arabic; she writes them down. A surreal situation, despite the everyday tone of the conversation. Meanwhile, David Kern gestures as if sizing up proportions and angles within a composition. While the woman and the translator become more impatient with each other, he describes the dark, foaming clouds that appear in the painting and the photo (signifying heavenly fury in one, human violence in the other) and poses amid the wires strung across the stage that refer to the perspective in both. As San Martin repeats her account, she writhes, her voice electronically manipulated into wails, groans, and shrieks. She’s not the eternally grieving mother of Cranach’s painting, she insists; she’s the mother in composition one who wants to know what happened to her son.
Kern offers more artspeak in the third “composition,” discussing the cloud formations pictured on a small screen set in an angled wooden wall. The mother sits numbly in a chair, the translator behind her. The program credits music to David Morrow and Thom Willems, but not much “music” is heard. Instead Zabala starts speaking into a mic, his voice distorted and amplified into a growl. When the men who may have been police in the first scene hurl themselves against the wall, the impact produces a deep, ear-splitting rumble. Several of the dozen powerful performers who crash through a door in the wall and race out from behind it to grapple and fall acquire mics too. The explosive sounds become almost unbearable.
In a sudden lull, Dana Casperson appears and addresses San Martin as “Ma’am” in a voice from the American South that’s been manipulated to sound both male and female. Everything’s fine. Whatever has happened, it’s nothing personal. Take it easy. Finally: “Your point of view is not interesting to me.”
As Forsythe shows—sometimes patly, mostly with brilliantly incisive force—whoever the aggressors in a war or persecution, they and their victims become components of a self-winding machine. No theater curtain descends to stop it.
At villagevoice.com/dance, read Jowitt on Vincent Mantsoe and Miguel Gutierrez.