Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Forsythe & the Baroque

At San Francisco Ballet ten days ago, I opened the program and read, "ARTIFACT SUITE Composer J.S.Bach, Eva Crossman-Hecht Choreography William Forsythe." I then put on my Nancy Drew sleuthing cap. Music by Bach? I flipped the program over and over again but found nothing more specific than that. It was not enough; I wanted to know what Bach, what piece, the instrumentation, the date of composition, all so that I could anticipate how the music might play with or against what I knew about the style of dance. An orchestral suite? Surely not a choral work. Something for solo keyboard? (I pondered that idea because the program made distinct note of company pianist Michael McGraw.) What of Bach's oeuvre could match or even meet Forsythe's choreography?

The grating broken chords of the famous violin chaconne surprised me. So baroque, I thought. If any piece defines the style, it is the chaconne, where the number of independent and intertwined voices seems impossibly conveyed by just the one instrument, and where the snaking "melodic" lines and dramatic full stops create a musical fabric that is as oddly asymmetrical as it is balanced against the work's overwrought emotion. I could begin, however, to read "the baroque" in Forsythe's vision, from the schoolish yet physically exaggerated port de bras to the fierce, gravity defying duets performed by two couples. The extravagance of every stretch, pull and lift in the pas de deux, not to mention the sheer speed of their movements, was indeed another voice against the stoic border of the corps and their angular arm gestures. The chiaroscuro of lighting design further emphasized the baroque ideal, though the work as a whole read as thoroughly modern, thoroughly late twentieth century.

Forsythe did not stop with the chaconne. During its last plaintive strains, an electronics track picked up threads of the chaconne's harmonies and melodies, bending and twisting pitch and speed ever so slightly and providing the transition into the second part of Artifact Suite. Michael McGraw launched into a piano work that sometimes suggested Bach (though in a way that Shostakovich's piano music suggest Bach) but that grew into this dense mass of sound. Throughout the second part, I never questioned the visual magic: Forsythe uses the dancers to carve into space, printing illusory designs on the enormity of the stage and then moments later sweeping the dancers to the edges, as if unfurling the blank black canvas once again. I did, however, find myself wondering if the music ... worked. I had a hard time reconciling the very live and present pianoness of McGraw's performance to the (recorded) chaconne. (I am curious how a live violinist might have spiced the mix.) But as quickly as these thoughts arose, I dismissed them. The musical arc of Artifact Suite did not satisfy me completely, but it did not undermine my appreciation for the whole work either.

I am impatient. At the end of the week I shall see Forsythe's company in Berkeley. San Francisco Ballet gave me a wonderful performance as well as much--aesthetically--to think about, and I'm willing to bet that seeing his own company will be like cracking open that oyster and finding the barroco inside.


in the interval after the chaconne (Nathan Milstein, can't believe they ommited it..oy)the chaconne is simply played backwards. To be perfectly honest, in order to hear the work at it's best you should have heard Margot Kazimirska play one of the two first performances this season. She performed the work for the Ballet Frankfurt for over a decade and is highly skilled in the demanding improvisitory techniques of Ms. Hecht the composer. Hecht's point of reference was the Bussoni transcription of the chaconne..
hope you enjoy the Berkley performances. Apropos, a note-
The first and second acts are conceived as a musical compositions. The dancers are actually constructing a series of silences that punctuate the accumulation of breath that the choreography produces. The second act is a counterpointed trio, or perhaps a duo for three voices.. and the third has a rather bravura solo for voice and software, designed by programers from IRCAM, Paris; just for us.
Cheers, William Forsythe

By Anonymous william forsythe, at 10:02 PM  

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