For 20 years, the American choreographer William Forsythe was director of the Frankfurt Ballet, where he created a series of highly technical, determinedly experimental and undoubtedly demanding works that exhilarated as many dance-goers as they alienated. Ousted in 2004, he has since directed his own company, smaller in scale but no less searching in scope.
On the surface, Forsythe’s current double bill appears to look back over this career: the short opening piece, N.N.N.N., is from 2002, and the new Study #3 is a compilation of snippets from 27 works dating back 30 years. But as the works play out, a more rigorous, impersonal logic comes to the fore: this programme is about connecting not dance with music exactly, but movement with sound.
In the starkly staged N.N.N.N., a male quartet, the sound comes directly from the dancers’ bodies. At the start, one man plops his right hand on to his left wrist, swings it up on to his shoulder, then lobs it on to his head – the soft impacts are all audible in the silence. Soon the effect is amplified, the dancers starting up a breathy accompaniment of huffs, blows and wheezes as they lock arms, or peel limb from limb, as if they were sticky with Velcro. These pats and puffs generate the soundtrack for Forsythe’s fascinatingly oddball composition of tics, triggers, loops and slips – part high-concept choreographic mechanism, part low-key slapstick.
you start seeing the dance itself as a kind of speech, and vice versa
Study #3, for the full company of 17 dancers and just as stark, takes a different tack. Much of the sound comes from a succession of dancers standing at an upstage microphone and speaking – or, more often, making noises that are incomprehensible but which sound exactly like speech, right down to details of phrasing, accent and intonation. On the body of the stage, in singles, pairs and groups, the dancers move with such astonishing articulation, fluency and eloquence that you start seeing the dance itself as a kind of speech, and vice versa. The other correspondences set up – between birdsong and rich rivulets of motion, between insect buzzes and jointed jitters, between the wayward noises of Thom Willems’s electronic score and the bewitching flair and amazing detail of the choreography – come to seem as communicative and as ungraspable as languages without words. Study # 3 certainly provokes a typically Forsythean mix of exhilaration and alienation. It sometimes feels more like an extended study than a piece, and you certainly have to work at it; but its strange alchemy also works wonders.