Decreation (2003) is the last piece that the profoundly influential choreographer William Forsythe created for Ballet Frankfurt, the company he directed from 1984 to 2004. Perhaps he felt the need to empty himself of the old and make way for something new—shucking off his earlier style, in which the lexicon of ballet was stretched to its outer limits. There are no “steps” in this bedlam of a work. The stage of the Howard Gilman Opera House seethes with dancers writhing in mutual strangleholds; wires from moveable mics, cameras, and lights; and ear-shattering howls and guttural moans—both from the performers and from composer David Morrow’s electronic keyboard.
Forsythe drew both title and inspiration from an essay by Anne Carson that deals with Sappho, Marguerite Porete (a mystic martyred in 1310), and 20th-century philosopher Simone Weil. Weil used the term “decreation” for the process of, in Carson’s words, “getting the self out of the way” to make room for God to enter. Carson explored the notion of triangles—God, the self, and a lover; God, the self being discarded, and the self that discards—and the jealousy they may engender.
The narrative fragments that thread through Decreation portray a couple at odds. In the beginning, Dana Caspersen stands, half-hidden by a small screen for projections. In a high, nasty voice, she spits out both characters’ lines, yanking her loose green sweater to one side or the other to indicate this contemporary Judy or her errant Punch. Georg Reischl renders the squabble in German. Meanwhile, Jone San Martin struts around like a wary turkey, her chest and butt stuck out, and Richard Siegel wrestles with Parvaneh Scharafali, who keeps rasping and yelping. Later, Caspersen and Siegel (both stunning actor-dancers) address one another in more normal tones, except that she’s facing us, and he’s shouting his lines into a mic some distance away, his back to her.
The lies, the clichés of marital wrangling (“All I ever wanted was to protect your innocence”) are grounded in the eternal question asked by both a jealous God and jealous lovers: “Would you ever love another more than you love me?” (I’m paraphrasing) and the ramifications of that. Trust and infidelity are issues. The 17 performers move as if they’re trying to decreate their own bodies; their bones seem to be melting, their sinews and tendons abandoning their usual pathways. At times, they resemble commedia dell’arte zanies or monkeys loping around or inmates of an asylum mugging for the camera that projects their images.
Eroticism rears its head. San Martin pushes her way between Fabrice Mazliah and Yasutake Shimaji, makes them put their hands on her crotch, her breast, then leaves them. Reischl and Shimaji tangle in a long combative duet, arms wrapping around each other’s necks, as if they’re trying to merge. Siegel interrogates Reischl, who says this apparent duel is really a “spiel,” a game. Siegel tells him it doesn’t look very playful. After Shimaji has fallen, Reischl turns himself into rubber, yanking at his sweater as if it’s a skin he can’t shed, while engaging in a very postmodern dialogue with Siegel (“I wrote the script, but I play you,” says Siegel at one point). Casperson, irritated, tries to call a halt by remarking, “This is not interesting,” and others hold up five fingers to let Reischl know he’s running out of time.
These are amazing performers, up for anything. Ander Zabala cuts loose with a powerful tenor voice. Cyril Baldy plays impish to the hilt. Caspersen can shift from artifice to earnestness in seconds. One vignette bearing on the work’s sub-theme of translation and mistranslation is particularly disorienting and chilling; it’s also very funny. Roberta Mosca sits on a chair with her back to us; San Martin, behind her and facing us, watches her intently, apparently translating what Mosca is gabbling into ferocious movement. Siegel, seated close by, also stares at Mosca, earnestly and haltingly figuring out what she’s “saying.” After several excruciating minutes, we have the complete text: “This is the deal. You give me everything, I give you nothing.”
The performance lasts 65 minutes. They seem like an eternity—not because the piece isn’t engrossing, but because the marathon of noise and silence, words and movement, pauses and furious action, artifice and casualness, sanity and derangement that Forsythe has organized is almost as exhausting to watch as it must be to perform. A search for God is less evident in Decreation than a search for a clear vision, for truth and trust. At the end, the dancers gather around a circular table, reiterating those words of eternally jealous lovers. But seated on the table as the lights go out, Elizabeth Waterhouse cradles Mosca, soothing her. It’s the only tender moment of the evening.