Sider was like nothing I have ever experienced or seen before. Of course, it is recognizeably dance, but beyond that, there is little for the audience to hold onto. Forsythe takes dance beyond anything we know, anything recognizeable, placing out of reach any hope of identification with the narrative and narrational logic for which the human body is usually a vehicle, or the logic that usually enables identification of and with the body. Every movement, every gesture towards rhythm, tone, coherence, all is ruptured, thrown into a vertiginous disarray that frustrates, enervates but never disappoints its audience. If Forsythe's earlier work invoked the protocols and vocabulary of classical ballet only to subvert them, Sider does away with any reference altogether.
The Chaillot website announces William Forsythe’s latest choreography thus: The “intricate patterns of [Elizabethan theatrical] speech are communicated to the performers via the soundtrack of a filmed version of a late 16th century tragedy. The adherence of the performer's actions to this vocal score instigates disquieting configurations of incongruous musicality that underscore the drama's themes of analogy and obscuration.” I include the quote because I would never have known that the discontinuous, fragmented and always unfinished movements were in fact inspired by the spoken text of a of a filmed version of an Elizabethan tragedy, which was in fact Hamlet. We were sitting too far back to notice the in-ear microphones that fed this text to the dancers. But even now I know it, I can’t say that it gives me any more insight into what I saw, heard and experienced at Chaillot last night.
I don’t know much about the Elizabethan theatre or the Courts that I assume were deconstructed in Sider, but I do know the music from the period. And I know that it is music in which the form cannot shift or change, ever. The harmony can explode if neccessary, but the form remains constant, a fortress, whose walls and dictates must be observed without choice. I also think of the perfection of the elaborate 16th century garden with its emphasis on symmetricality, formal, one could say, scientific complexity. While pleasure might take place in the garden, its architecture is as rigid as the social forms of those who designed it. All this is shattered in Sider: any resemblance to form has been set asunder. There is no base line, nothing for us to hold on to, at least nothing that might resemble the narratives that help us make sense of the world, and our place within that world. The stage of Sider was overrun by chaos and disarray. Nothing cohered, nothing made sense, and just when I thought I was beginning to grasp what was happening, the rug was pulled out from under me. Anne and I laughed as we climbed the magisterial staircase of the Théâtre National de Chaillot, and I announced that I thought it was going to end when a male and a female dancer found each other under a cardboard sheet, and in one of the few moments of human interaction, they slink off the stage together. But no, of course, this is the Hollywood ending to a piece of choreography that couldn’t be further removed from the manufacture of dreams. True to the non-logic of Sider, the end was not really an end, but rather, the place it happened to stop.
Other than the fact that the dancers kept their same costumes throughout the performance, the only constant was the use of the huge cardboard sheets as props. Of course, the dancers made the handling of the sheets look effortless, but I was in awe of the dexterity and diversity of their use, knowing how awkward cardboard of that size actually is, thus recognizing the intense demand of the dancers' movement. At various points the cardboard sheets were made into fortresses, at others they became shields against each other as enemy, weapons, drums to be beaten. And then the dancers used them to create the semblance, or the beginnings of rhythms: they kicked the cardboard to make loud repetitive noises, dragged a sheet across the stage for the sound of the wind, or dropped it to create that of an axe slicing through wood. The cardboard sheets were also the sole connection between the dancers, though usually as that which separated one from another. In perhaps the only tender moment in the performance, they hastily built a house in which to hide, though from what it was not clear. And at times the one male dancer who was not in the guise of a creature from another era, another planet, or reminiscent of another life form slid like an eel behind a sheet, only to have his protection ripped away.
A friend from Frankfurt had told me about Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt in the 1990s when I was writing my dissertation on light in German cinema. My friend had said then that Forsythe’s company sculpted its mise-en-scène in light. In the 1990s, the use of light was no doubt different from its use in Sider but it’s true, the low-hung bands of fluorescent light, dictated by the same digital sounds as the bodily movement, contributed to Forsythe’s challenge to what constitutes dance. At one point, the lights were turned off altogether and we were left listening to dancers and cardboard making mysterious gestures across the stage. In its integration, or amalgamation of sound, light, text, movement, Forsythe’s work is about as close to a contemporary gesamtkunstwerk as anything I have seen in my lifetime. And so, it’s not simply a reframing of everything we understand dance to be, Sider is experimental art at its most cutting edge.