“Enough of my serious stuff,” declared William Forsythe about his new piece I Don’t Believe in Outer Space. “Now we need a little comedy.” Who was he kidding? Yes, there is plenty of humour, but the piece is also stuffed with seriousness. Not everyone found the jokes funny – or, for that matter, the stuff serious. But I did; here’s why.
First, take Dana Casperson, whose firecracker presence is the nearest you get to a through-line. In the opening scene, she voices three roles in one: a squeaky housewife, her growly, intrusive neighbour, and the stage directions for their encounter (“tilts head, looks at ceiling”). It’s a gleefully cartoonish portrayal, Casperson flipping between squatty, bug-eyed devil and upright uptightness in the blink of an eye. But beneath the surface, it’s also uncannily disturbing: the neighbour from hell carries real menace; the housewife, real fear.
That sense of simultaneous and contradictory layers runs throughout I Don’t Believe in Outer Space. The music, by Forsythe regular Thom Willems, is a mash-up of references and registers: free-form jazz splashed with faintly familiar scraps of tune, blurred with electronica and piled on top of a Pink Panther bassline. Choreographically, one section is emblematic of how Forsythe keeps a rein (a loose one) on action that often looks unfocussed, even arbitrary. The whole company are on stage, in their any-old practice clothes, and in their disorderly, rag-tag way they variously spread out, rush together, fall down. Meanwhile, a voiceover – lip-synched by several dancers in relay – describes a sequence of events happening “as if by chance”: a spreading out, a gathering together, a falling down. This imparts a precarious logic to the jumble, like glimpsing physics at work within chaos, even though you don’t understand it. It’s both bewildering and – given the impish-chimpish scamperings of the dancers – surprisingly entertaining.
More obviously entertaining are recurrent snippets of song lyrics, sometimes from “I Put a Spell on You”, but mostly from the disco classic “I Will Survive”. It’s sung in overblown operatic style, puts in an appearance in a scene featuring a bandaged scientist who’s lost control over (but not belief in) his experiments, and is barked out by Casperson as she wriggles brokenlimbed across the floor, like a dying monster in a horror movie milking its final scene. You end up with the weird feeling of “I Will Survive” as having an independent, even transcendent existence that sometimes manifests in human form. Nothing is ever singular in this piece: when something happens, something else is also happening. A one-sided game of ping-pong (one player has both bats – oh, and there’s no ball) is offset by a fluttery woman in the background. A couple slither disjointedly on the floor while another woman stands and raises a leg, her foot cocking like a dog’s ear.
Words are often ventriloquised: mimed to playback recordings, they seem to belong elsewhere. Offstage, you glimpse what looks like a warehouse in the wings, walls plastered with photographs of the dancers’ faces, floor piled with bright plastic bags like the accumulated flotsam of their lives, and the stage itself is strewn with scrunched-up balls of gaffer tape, like the debris of a passing meteor shower. Even the individual dancers look multiple, their bodies constantly popping and wriggling as if there were more than one creature inside them.
The non-sequiturs, the “environmental” set, the strung-together sequences and multiple media make you think of Pina Bausch. Bausch’s dreamscapes, however, originate in the soul; Forsythe is a bit more disco. In his piece, humans are mere vessels, manifestations of a wider flux of forces as arbitrary and as significant as stardust or a catchy lyric. Perhaps that’s why Forsythe has a huge playing card crop up several times, a blindfolded jack, or joker, that represents both chance and destiny. That’s life.
In the final scene, Forsythe turns to death. Casperson approaches a seated dancer, and matter-of-factly indicates what death will erase: “no more this”, she says, pointing to the angle of a knee, the curve of a face, a shoulder span. But there is no last word, for even death is not final or singular. As if by chance, there’s another dancer sitting off to one side, twitching and wriggling. She will survive.