A Study of Form and Individuality
On ViewThe Shed
William Forsythe: A Quiet Evening of Dance
October 11, 2019 – October 25, 2019
It’s opening night of William Forsythe: A Quiet Evening of Dance at the Shed, and the audience files into the spacious black box theater, nearly drowning out a gentle soundtrack of bird chirps with pre-show conversations. Per the program, we will be treated to work compiled from different time stamps along William Forsythe’s career: newly commissioned pieces (Epilogue and Seventeen/Twenty-One) stand alongside existing repertory (Dialogue (DUO2015) and Catalogue) re-worked over the past 20 years. The program introduces four new dancers added just for tonight; we are later told they have learned the show in three days. Veteran collaborators comprise the majority of tonight’s 10-person cast, many with decades of varied experience and lengthy working relationships with Forsythe.
Forsythe himself has enjoyed a nearly 50-year career, traversing ballet and contemporary dance both as a performer and choreographer. Historically, Forsythe’s work has also traversed disciplines, exploring choreography in other art contexts, such as the kinetic installation Black Flags (2014). As resident choreographer at the Stuttgart Ballet in 1976, then director at the Ballet Frankfurt beginning in 1984, his practice reflects deep roots in classical ballet, and his work holds prominent ground in the repertoire of ballet companies around the globe. He later founded and helmed The Forsythe Company until 2015.
The stage is bright throughout tonight’s performances and devoid of distracting backdrop or scenery, drawing our eyes to the dancers’ bodies and movement. They wear utilitarian pants and shirts, non-descriptive in shape and initially limited to dark neutrals, though some pieces trade out for brighter jewel tones as the show progresses. Socks pulled on over sneakers create an intriguing balance of grip and slide. Forsythe’s choreography leaves a luxurious amount of space on stage and easily accommodates the extra bodies in tonight’s show. (I find myself taking guesses throughout the evening as to which dancers were the late additions. Their newness is just barely perceptible, and adds a heightened sense of nerviness and vulnerability to an already intimate show.)
Forsythe’s work is known for its physicality and, here, that means speed. There is nary an adagio in sight; choreography often demands a precise movement or shape per count, which the dancers hit and transition quickly to the next. Either as a byproduct of the pace or as a choreographic choice, the legs are modest: extensions rarely float above a generous 90 degrees, and most often flit and beat in coupés around the ankles. Arms slice open to present the body, reminiscent of the preparation for a grand curtsy, or an epic pirouette. (Although, when the dancers actually spin, they do it in the blink of an eye, sans apparent wind-up or preamble.) The pas de deux are polite courtships; dancers offer a hand, but the planes of their bodies rarely connect.
Per Forsythe, the show is “not silent, but it’s very quiet,” forgoing music for most of the show. We realize quickly that music acts as a white noise machine, and even small sounds now seem monumental in its absence: coughs from attendees whose immune systems have forsaken them, a carelessly opened bottle of something carbonated, and the buzzing of some rogue’s phone left on vibrate. These inelegant human interjections mix with the measured rhythms of the dancers’ breath, creating an unscripted soundscape that reaches beyond the stage.
The show opens with Prologue, performed this evening by Parvaneh Scharafali and Ander Zabala. This brief pas de deux serves as a graceful amuse bouche for the show with more bent knees, tilt, and turn-in than your average ballet, punctuated by the sound of the dancers’ inhales and exhales in the quiet theater. Catalogue, the next duet performed by Jill Johnson and Brit Rodemund, feels lengthy by comparison. The dancers appear as two avian characters in blue, looping through sequences of arm and shoulder movements, then setting their shoulders and glancing around at sharp angles. More solos flit across the stage in Epilogue, with multi-colored pairings of socks and gloves, and tidy quick steps set to music by Morton Feldman from the 1950s. Seeing the full cast, we as an audience can appreciate contrasts in movement backgrounds and style, and the nuance it brings to the choreography: some dancers present closed or collapsed torsos where others are open, and some elbows hover close to the sides where others execute more traditionally lifted port de bras.
The male duets prove especially crowd-pleasing, including Dialogue (DUO2015) with Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts, closing the first half of the show. This work reads as lighter and more overtly contemporary than what we’ve watched previously, transitioning into jaunty walking, which the dancers perform together with contagious amusement.
After intermission, Seventeen/Twenty One winds through another string of duets. We watch Rauf “Rubber Legz” Yasit skid across the floor, weaving in and out of contorted shapes while other dancers regard him politely. The final piece of the evening summons the full group on stage, introducing more precise formations and momentary unison.
When asked about creating this evening of work, Forsythe notes being “drawn to the formal elements of a practice,” but also explains to the Shed interviewer that “the dancer is absolutely everything.” A Quiet Night of Dance sits at the intersection of these two ideas, drawing together the choreographer’s decades-long formal exploration and the unique physical capacities of individual bodies to create something that does not read as impersonal or scientific at all. Instead, we are taken by the visceral warmth of the performance, watching closely as dancers with diverse bodies and backgrounds draw pleasure from their craft.