Emily Hoffman on the broken patterns in William Forsythe's Sider, a work that conjures and contends with Elizabethan tragedy.
In contemporary dance, a certain degree of inscrutability can be expected. It comes with the territory of a non-narrative art.
But there are moments when inscrutability can feel exciting, and there are those when it can feel repellant. One feels ejected from the dance; the cost of watching outstrips the possible rewards. My experience of watching William Forsythe’s Sider, for all its conceptual complexity and rigor, felt more like the latter.
The work is an elaborate formal riff on an Elizabethan tragedy. In the program and press materials, it is explained that the dancers are wearing earphones through which the text of a particular tragedy (Forsythe won’t say which) is playing. The performers, 19 in all, also carry large rectangular flats of corrugated cardboard, which they often use as set pieces. Flats are lain under, hid behind, manipulated, at one point made into a sort of fort. The dancers also run around with, kick, beat, and tap out patterns on the cardboard “in rhythm with the syllables of the text.”
Fluorescent lights, meant to evoke “English and Danish skies,” flicker on and off at fixed intervals. The dance is broken into scenes, sometimes between two performers, sometimes three; sometimes the whole cast rushes the stage. There is dancing: the most dancer-ly movement is knock-kneed, jointed, marionette-like. Some duets and trios are redolent of stage combat. There are other scenes in which the performers move around the stage like fencers or boxers, making bold, purposeful lateral shifts before coming to a stop, or pivoting and moving off in another direction. There is patterned, unison moving, like that of Birnam Wood to Dunsinane. There is also speaking. The text is in a made-up language but the delivery is in the manner of the Elizabethan stage: declamatory, artificial, perfectly recognizable. A pink-hooded fool delivers most of the speech, which often feels like commentary. But other performers speak with more dramatic intent.
There is something basically compelling about adapting Elizabethan theater in so perverse a way. Rather than trying to “make it relevant” by, say, putting Orlando Bloom on a motorcycle, Forsythe has rejected the “timeless truths” model in favor of historical aesthetic play.
The effect, though, reminds me why kids hate Shakespeare. The bad puns, the group scenes, the interminable joking of porters and night watchmen. As a child, it’s bewildering and boring. Without access to the meaning, the outmoded form alienates. Some of Forsythe’s big, group, cardboard-kicking scenes have the native, rhythmic excitement of, say, a St. Crispin’s Day speech, which can send a chill down your spine even if you don’t understand a word. But more often, it’s like watching Murellus and the Cobbler make lousy double entendres about shoes.
One problem with formal investigations is that they can be oddly tone deaf, oddly blind to what the piece actually looks like or does in the moment of performance. Often, the delivery of the text feels a lot like bad clowning. Perhaps Forsythe intended the comedy, but the audience seemed not to think so: a number of people sitting around me were working very hard to suppress laughter. Something about the tone of the piece told them they weren’t supposed to find it funny.
The patterning of the stage movement is elaborate and Forsythe’s account of it is impressive. Again in press materials, he says “The dancers . . . often follow their own private map to find their way . . . For instance, Roberta Mosca moves at the start through an imaginary Sumerian village. She conjures it with two cardboard sheets, as if she were building a cardboard castle. Fabrice Mazilah moves between the sheets, but in his view they don’t represent a Sumerian village at all. And so that’s how tension is added to the set.” What does this mean in performance? Perhaps it accounts for some of the exciting purpose with which the performers moved around the stage. Still, it’s not doing as much as one might hope.
Throughout the piece, a series of analogies are projected on a small supertitle screen at the back of the stage. “She is to them as they are to us”; “He is to that as this it to him”; “It was to him as he was to it”; “These are to him as they are to us”; “She is to them as they are to him”; “She was to them as you are to her”; “What are these to them?”; “or they to her?” At first, I was excited. It seemed to me that some kind of sophisticated summary of the stage action was being given, that someone had incredibly managed to schematize the action of a play as a series of analogous relationships. I tried to follow the logic, but every time I came up empty handed.
“We work here with very powerful formal systems,” Forsythe writes in the program, “but I continually shatter their logic by inserting exceptions. But before they notice that, I also shatter that logic by inserting exceptions to that exception. It all has to do with how the human brain works: it’s always looking for patterns and connections so as to be able to predict the unfolding of an event. Once that becomes clear, however, a spectator’s attention weakens. That’s why I keep pricking it over and over again.”
This seems right to me, in part, but incomplete: there has to be some sort of upper limit. Too many broken patterns is like too many colors: you end up with mud.
“What is a paradox?” Anne Carson asks in Eros the Bittersweet. “A paradox is a kind of thinking that reaches out but never arrives at the end of its thought. Each time it reaches out, there is a shift of distance in mid-reasoning that prevents the answer from being grasped . . . Each one contains a point where the reasoning seems to fold into itself and disappear, or at least that is how it feels. Each time it disappears, it can begin again, and so the reach continues. If you happen to enjoy reasoning, you are delighted to begin again. On the other hand, your enjoyment of reasoning must entail some wish to arrive at a conclusion, so your delight has an edge of chagrin.”
Perhaps inscrutability has something to do with the ratio of delight to chagrin.
I wonder about endings, why so often formally courageous works revert to stock patterns to conclude. Sider ends with the performers, all assembled, leaving the stage one by one, allowing their cardboard rectangles to fall to the ground. Then, the first tableau is reestablished; the play begins again. As the lights fade, titles come up on the screen: “they were,” followed by, “and they weren’t.” And here the problem of inscrutability is reversed. It seems we know all too well what’s being said.
William Forsythe's Sider was at BAM from October 9 through 12. The company will premiere a new work at the Hellerau European Center for the Arts in Dresden October 30 through November 10.
Emily Hoffman is a writer and critic living in New York City.