Lights fade in the Haus der Berliner Festspiele theatre as music creeps in bearing a strange resemblance to the Twilight Zone. Scattered on the stage are dozens of silver metallic balls. Five dancers of the William Forsythe Company are mixed within these odd meteorite-esque props and immediately capture my attention with their provocative denial of the fourth wall. Before my eyes could adjust to the dim lighting of the theatre, a petite woman crawls downstage with Gollum-like slyness. She is lip-syncing to the words of an actor behind her, enticing us into her sphere of play. They are telling the audience a story of survival and manipulation through a movement technique unique to only one man.
The introduction to world-renown dance choreographer William Forsythe’s work “I Don’t Believe in Outer Space” is one fitting to the Forsythe style, but most unusual to the common theatre-goer. Performed on the evening of July 7th, this piece first premiered in 2008 with a cast of 18 dancers in the company’s headquarters in Dresden, Germany. The Forsythe Company has received international acclaim for advancing the technique of contemporary dance, and creating a broader spectrum of dance forms than just ballet. Since the company’s formation in 2004, Forsythe’s repertoire has shown all over the world and is continually staged by professional companies internationally. This performance in Berlin was in conjunction with a greater festival hosted by “Berliner Festspiele” focusing on arts in Foreign Affairs titled “Internationales Festival für Kunst und Performative Künste” (International Festival for Art and Performance Arts), running June 27-July 14th.
Since its premiere, “I Don’t Believe in Outer Space” has transformed with the addition of new dancers and new movement. William Forsythe himself even played a role in the original dance; however to my dismay, he was unable to participate this go-around. The two performances in Berlin (of which I saw the second) were clearly nothing less spectacular than the original. The dance takes shape through the evolving intensity of group dynamics and the aforementioned petite female protagonist. Broken into segments of thematic movement, the intro-quintet transforms to a larger group number involving the entire the cast. A series of frantic, improvised patterns carries the dancers across the stage, crawling upon each other, between legs, kicking the meteorite balls, collapsing their energy into the floor. Throughout this entire sporadic section, the dancers lip sync to a monologue pre-recorded by the protagonist. Each takes a turn doing her dirty work by maneuvering through the limited space on the stage, coming to the forefront of the house, and projecting a silenced voice in the spotlight.
The layering of text and song within a dance is a signature device of Forsythe’s work, and distinguishes his choreography from others internationally. Throughout the length of the performance, the dancers speak to one another through familiar pop lyrics from songs like “I Will Survive” and “As If by Chance.” This is done in such an off-putting manner that one must really think to remember the song’s original form. And being a predominantly German audience, I was curious as to how many of them would actually draw the connection. Nonetheless, these lyrics threaded into movement display Forsythe’s ingenuity as a choreographer; they not only advanced the characters’ objectives, but also heightened the quality of performance. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this break from the norm. In typical dance performances, there is often a disconnect between the emotion and interactions occurring onstage and the audience – an audience-performer relationship pitfall. In Forsythe’s performance, however, the dancers invited me onto their stage, onto their field of play. I recognized the songs they sang and the moves they danced. The familiarity and accessibility made the entire performance all the more powerful and inspiring.
The remaining fortyish minutes of the performance continued on with new chapters of the story —a Ping-Pong tournament mimed between two masked male dancers, a 4’11” Japanese firework leading the audience in a jazzercise-like workout routine, an erotic solo performed by the protagonist where she attempts to seduce her neighbor, followed by the slow death of her essence onstage. One cannot even notice the transitions between sections despite many of the dances being completely improvised each night These improvised sections naturally create a shift in dynamic between the dancers with every performance, yet they are perfectly seamless and add to the beauty of the movement; movement that is grotesque, alien-like at times, crude and offensive to the audience. Yet these bodily forms transfer across the fourth wall with a grace that caused even the 78-year-old German lady next to me to gasp in amazement.
Although American-born, William Forsythe is an idol within the Germany dance scene and thus both showings were completely sold out. For the artsy post-hipster community in Berlin, this was an especially delightful evening (the applause lasted for twenty minutes). As a dancer enamored with Forsythe choreography since the age of 14, my opportunity to finally see his work live was a breath-taking moment. I, along with every audience member in that Haus, was a member of the Forsythe Company that evening, together dancing the technique that so eloquently sings his name.