Dance is always called the ephemeral art, and it’s never more ephemeral than the moment you sit down to write about it. Critics go to the theater armed with all kinds of paper. Some have those long, skinny, nifty reporters notebooks (the beat goes on), while others scratch violently on yellow legal pads (review as deposition). One critic famously deposits her descriptions in little ledgers the size of a slim cigarette case—one puff per page. I use spiral notebooks, smaller than the ones from grade school, larger than my address book. You could say the scribbling inside is a synthesis of classroom and map.

I don’t like to look back at my notebooks. First of all, they’re messy. The little sentences lurch and weave and drop off into nowhere—their own spastic dance. Second, they’re boring; totally prosaic. Here are three lines picked at random: “4 men in dove gray and diamondite tunics” or “Ethan’s new haircut” or “zombie balances.” Third, looking back into the notebook means I’m at the work part of dance writing—describing the dance—because for this you need a reality check (what was done and what-you-remember-was-done can be two entirely different things). This much I’ve learned: when I go back into a notebook and see pages and pages describing the nooks and crannies of a dance, it means the dance never became pleasurable, never pulled off words into its own world, never got . . . beyond. It means the dance was bad.

Dance is always called the ephemeral art.

Eidos: Telos, the work from 1995 that William Forsythe and his Ballett Frankfurt brought to the Brooklyn Acadmic of Music in early December, arrived in New York already weighted down with words. First there were the preview pieces explaining Forsythe, like this bit of heavy weather from Darrell Wilkins in Ballet Review: “Above all, however, it is the complacency of self-righteousness and the passivity of American consumerism that Forsythe despises and fears, and seeks to combat in his ballets. As if to chastise passivity, he employs a doggedly cerebral language that requires the active, intellectual participation of his audience. . . . Forsythe ballets affect the spirit only by virtue of a synaptic signal transmitted by the brain.” (Uh-oh . . .)

Then there were the pieces placing Forsythe, like this blithe claim from the young critic at Time Out: “Forsythe’s dances are filled with movement language and choreographic patterns every bit as thrilling and sophisticated as those created by George Balanchine.” This is not the first time Forsythe has been pushed up into Balanchine’s league.

Finally, there was Forsythe himself. “Last week I got Forsythe on the phone and asked him what to expect,” wrote Christopher Reardon in The Village Voice. “He replied with a cerebral riff on clinical neurology, classical mythology, and mathematical algorithms—odd concerns for a dance rooted in grief.” Opening the program at BAM, one faced five pages of Forsythe, i.e. tiny print deconstructing the title, reprinting the text, contemplating the idea—not once but twice—all in a literary style that moved between the portentous aphorism (“Movement is a factor of the fact that you are actually evaporating”) and a mind-numbing, jargon-loving stream of consciousness: “since it was all alphabetic operations, which means there is access by proximity—in other words, positions suggest movements within an associative chain or organization, which is based on where the limbs are placed in relation to each other. Your kinesphere functions as a memory. . . .” As if this weren’t enough, there was also a diagram of Forsythe’s “Choreographic System,” a sort of concrete poem of squares, arrows, and postmodern strategies like “Further Modifying/Analytical Operations.”

And the dance hasn’t even started.

Twyla Tharp. Photo: Jack Mitchell, Jack Mitchell Archive.

Eidos: Telos translates as “The Form: The End” or “Genre: The End” and looking at those five pages one had to wonder if we were to take them straight, as helpful hints to the dance, or if they’re actually a weird endgame, a flamboyant joke like the time-lapsed, acid-colored apocalypse in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, only in this case the “kinesphere” is a nihilistic maze of language. If it is a joke, it’s the same joke Forsythe has been telling for years: you know, the one about classical ballet—that it’s dead.

Forsythe’s first hit in America was Side 2—Love Songs from 1979. Choreographed for the Stuttgart Ballet, reading like the flip side to the classical pas de deux, it was a series of chaotic, bashing, bruising duets set to Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick songs. By the mid-1980s, Love Songs had been picked up by ballet companies around the country. You could tell dancers loved throwing themselves into this pop-music abyss, that they felt hip and slick taking liberties with technique in the name of verismo. And audiences too responded to the violence. The Eighties was a time of unbuttoned aggression in the dance world, never mind that for sheer chthonic power you couldn’t top Balanchine’s Four Temperaments, a 1946 masterpiece of monstrous, yet absolutely formal, hunger. Twyla Tharp was doing appetite-aggression-apocalypse her way in her company, percolating nasty patterns and implosions like a chemist in a lab (a noxious early dance was called Bad Smells), and even Paul Taylor was playing on the Hellmouth, with nuclear explosions like Last Look.

But Forsythe was doing something different. With Love Songs he began his ironic relationship, his love-hate relationship, with ballet—his love of the classical vocabulary as a collection of academic status symbols he could polish or pervert; his hate of the classical syntax for its imposing, and powerfully predisposing, poetics. Rather than facing the music and coming to terms with ballet’s deep and dazzling grammar (which has, it’s true, swamped legions of choreographers in cliché, in endless swoons and bourrées), Forsythe tosses steps into the void. He may isolate a deadpan plié or a woozy arabesque and then repeat it endlessly, turning it into an absurd tic, a nagging scratch on the sound track. Or he may hammer state-of-the-art extensions and pirouettes into stiff phrases, each step receiving the same unrelenting pressure, the same space. It’s an impacted phrase, robbed of rhythm and breath and life. Imagine a sentence in which “each” “word” “is” “in” “quotes”—there’s only one way to say it. Forsythe has a partner in crime in his composer Thom Willems, who likes to lift a measure of music from some iconic ballet score (from Tchaikovsky in Impressing the Czar, from Stravinsky in Eidos: Telos) and then torture it on the rack of his synthesizer, making it groan and scream. Neither Forsythe nor Willems risks putting a coherent phrase onstage. If they did, we might see what’s missing.

On ballet dancers in the best companies (this does not include Forsythe’s own company, Ballett Frankfurt), thanks to the highly-calibrated and quicksilver articulation of their bodies, Forsythe’s work virtually gleams. At the New York City Ballet, for instance, the dancers computerize his sharp, jarring steps, absorbing his discontinuities, his gibberish, in one long sinewy surge. Technique becomes technology. The audience, not surprisingly, responds with hoots and cheers, caught up in the self-congratulatory, sci-fi energy—it’s the inhuman, pushbutton power of The Terminator.

Still, Forsythe hungers for big and intricate meanings. And so we get works like Steptext (1984), a semiotics exercise that implies we’ve never understood a dance, or Same Old Story (1987), which asserts that ballet has nothing left to tell us anyway, or the full-length work from 1988, Impressing the Czar, which is actually a malcontent’s abstraction of Sleeping Beauty. From bits of Beauty, that dream of wordless classical continuity, Forsythe fashions a nightmare of slaughter, insanity, and (you guessed it) talk talk talk. Like one of those scary grad students—every campus has one—who sees corruption everywhere and we all must pay, who trots out his dissertation idea on every cheap date, Forsythe has made a career of making ballets about one thing—Eidos: Telos. The Form: The End. Maybe that’s why they love him in Germany. He is enchanted by obliteration.

Looking in my notebook, I see that I too wrote five pages on Eidos: Telos, never once sensing that it was “a dance rooted in grief” (specifically, grief over the death of Forsythe’s wife at age thirty-two). The work is divided into three parts, with two abstract dances floating on either side of a long, knotty, texted middle. The two “ballets” that are Parts I and III could really come under any title, for they are not distinguished by any specific steps or movements—it’s just an open stage filled with bodies doing Forsythian doodles, hyperventilated exercises. Part I might be titled, after an observation in my notebook that sounds quite like a Forsythe title, “very inexact—muddled feeling.” (It’s actually called “Self Meant to Govern.”) There are ominous trappings, however: clock faces, a metronome, and a digital clock on the cyclorama that eventually runs backwards to ground zero—“00:00”—while a violin and some trombones go berserk.

Part II—we know from the articles, the quotes, the program notes—is an evocation of Persephone’s return to the underworld, but juxtaposed on top of that is the story of Arachne, the spiderwoman. The stage is webbed with wires, from which hang a video screen and other electrical stuff. A small blond woman, Dana Casperson, her naked torso emerging from a bustled skirt, wanders under the wires reciting a surrealist account of her burrowings up and down through dirt. This becomes increasingly grotesque, a banshee mad scene that has her on all fours, screaming, heaving, digging. Eventually, Spidergirl is joined by the rest of the company, who are dressed like her in bustled skirts. These are “the ranks of the dead” and the zeitgeist is established by a guy who whines a series of complaints, each prefaced with the realization that: “I’m fuckin’ dead, man” and ending with a vicious threat, like “I’m gonna chop your head off and fuck you in the neckhole.” It’s that grad student again—à la Tarantino! Eventually we come to the requisite Forsythe set-piece, and the dancers began to swoop kaleidoscopically, making waves of symmetry, skirts wheeling as in the final section of Balanchine’s Vienna Waltzes. For a moment, Forsythe has stopped with intellectual postures and is actually touching the medium. He’s communicating not through gaps and absence, but through pulse and presence. And what does he show us? The same old punchline: the lockstep of Nothingness.

As I noted earlier, Ballett Frankfurt does not gleam in Forsythe’s choreography. Though it’s been ten years since I last saw this troupe, I was caught short by its motley look, the women with their faulty turnout and sickled feet, the men somewhat grungy, and puffed up in false bravado, not a virtuoso in the group. The fans of Forsythe write incessantly of the strength and classicism of this company, but Forsythe should get his nose out of Derrida and start tending his tendus. First position might be a good place to start. These dancers were only a little less shabby than their compatriots who came to Lincoln Center last summer, the Hamburg Ballet. Led by John Neumeier—like Forsythe, another expatriate American—the Hamburg dancers had legs and feet like string cheese, weak and imprecise. But then, all that lunging, leaping, and weeping in the mountains of Mahler (Neumeier’s obsession), all those transfigurations, not to mention cowbells, have left them all milked out with no place to go.

Both Forsythe and Neumeier are pretentious as hell—it’s a prerequisite for working in Europe—but at least with Forsythe there’s a theatrical intelligence. His enchainments may be meaningless, but he knows how to section and organize a work so you can later think something has happened—he juggles his empty synapses with flair. Neumeier, a modern dancer who wormed his way into ballet, makes flat dances that are all heavy plastique and thick flow, folk treacle “from the hills of Old Serbia” (as one astute friend put it), mornings on the autobahn, evenings on the Rhine. It’s as if he thinks all you need to do is add toe shoes and the dance becomes classical. Yet there’s no liftedness in Neumeier, no celestial sense of the vertical. And there’s virtually no footwork beyond bourrées and a bit of woodcut heel-toe (Neumeier is Forsythe’s fate-worse-than-death.)

Speaking of wood, Neumeier has a bad habit of planting men onstage, dumbly, like trees, or, perhaps, The Forest Primeval. There’s a brutish homoeroticism in Neumeier’s work that you’re not sure he’s aware of. In his ballets, the men never look at the women. Even in a pas de deux, eyes don’t meet. In fact, in one of his Mahler ballets Neumeier made a pas de deux in which the couple dances with their backs to each other. But you should see the brio of his group dances for guys (soldiers, goatherds, whatever)—suddenly it’s summer with Ted Shawn at Jacob’s Pillow. The Neumeier ballet that had its New York premiere during American Ballet Theatre’s fall season at City Center, Spring and Fall, was about as bad as a Neumeier ballet gets (my notebook: “2 guys begin section 2, bumping chests in air”) and a little too reminiscent of Antony Tudor’s achingly autumnal Leaves are Fading, also set to Dvorak, and premiered by ABT back in 1975. But then if Neumeier’s got anything, it’s gall. Last summer, the Hamburg Ballet brought a work called Bernstein Dances to the State Theater, the very stage where Jerome Robbins, Bernstein’s longtime collaborator, premiered so many dances to the same Bernstein scores. I see in my notebooks I covered eight pages with description, i.e. “LBfigure [Bernstein] goes backwards on back of crawling dancer—mimes piano playing.” The student days?

Tharp premiered a work at ABT this fall called Known By Heart and it was, on first viewing, a puzzlement.

I’ve sometimes lumped Twyla Tharp in with Forsythe as an artist whose energy seems to flow from a place of anger and ambivalence. She’s always most herself plunk in the middle of chaos, jostled and giddy, chasing sensation with spikes on, the Ty Cobb of choreography. In the echelons of order, in Bach or Mozart, she choreographs with a furrowed brow and an empty hand—she doesn’t know how to have fun, and starts tripping and goosing the status quo, like a mean jester. So yes, a bit like Forsythe, Tharp has made negative slants and sleights a point of departure. But unlike Forsythe, Tharp’s work is sensual, palpable, and formal in a traditional way. She loves music (her dance to silence, The Fugue, is more melodious than anything Forsythe has done). She has a feeling for odd continuities and relevant pop references. And she pushes at the syntax from within its rhythms, from within its ribs.

Tharp premiered a work at ABT this fall called Known By Heart and it was, on first viewing, a puzzlement. The ballet is divided into three sections and the music includes two anonymous selections, plus Mozart, Donald Knaack, and Steve Reich. From section to section there is no discernible harmonic connection. The first section, a pas de deux for Julie Kent and Angel Corella, is delicate, airy, a flirtation in the dell set to what sounds like a march, followed by Mozart’s “Danse Allemande.” The second section, to Knaack’s clanking, ticking, toy-piano piece “Junk Music,” is a contemporary duet for Ethan Stiefel and Susan Jaffe, a sort of cyber-glam romance—a ballet in a Barneys’ window, complete with high-fashion standoffs and come-ons (it’s an off-and-on relationship). The third section, to Reich, is all momentum, with an avid corps dancing in twos and fours, the stage a concourse of slow motion and sudden speed. The four principals return and mix in, their earlier choreographic phrases now suspended collage-like in Reich’s timeless twilight.

What kind of ballet is Known By Heart? You can’t tell, but you don’t quite care because it’s pulling you along anyway, drawing you into its whims and psychodramas. One thing is clear: in Ethan Stiefel, Tharp has found a new fascination (perhaps a new Misha). ABT ’s strawberry-blond boywonder has never looked so grown up, so pure and pumped at once. Stiefel steals the show with his good-natured perfection, his stance of bafflement in the face of feminine wiles. Even more importantly, Tharp has made steps for Julie Kent that look like steps made for Julie Kent. They’re sea-shell delicate—not the usual higgledy-piggledy throw-away lines Tharp gives women—and they’re pure pleasure. It’s a real breakthrough for Tharp, who has never been very good with ballet girls.

On second viewing, Tharp’s ballet—long at forty-four minutes—seemed not longer but shorter, always a sign that something’s right. The dancers were relishing their roles, and the work’s construction, still strange, began to seem a metaphor for suspended judgment, aimless impulses. Known By Heart mixes favorite Tharp dance forms, bits and schtick she can do, has done, in her sleep and knows “by heart”: the boxing jabs, the sparring lovers, the aerobic angels, the softshoe shadows, the lilt she’s lifted from ballet’s pastorals. It’s all there, floated out and then compressed into the strata of Reich’s dark, dense, endless loop of sound, with its coal-dust intonations. Tharp hasn’t made a diamond. I don’t think she tried to. That’s the beauty. Instead she’s made a dusky dance embedded with chips and sparkles, machine dreams and déjà-vu. It’s a stretch of her subconscious. I hardly wrote a word.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 6, on page 53
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