Three Atmospheric Studies
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 28, 2007
Three Atmospheric Studies, a new work by The Forsythe Company, made me think about a lot of different things, while I was in the audience and afterward. In fact, two new thoughts popped into my head as I wrote that last sentence: first, that the company's choice of descriptor—"work" (as opposed to "ballet" or "dance theater piece" or whatever)—is entirely apt in that this "work" blurs the lines between genres and forms rather aggressively, a great thing in my opinion; and second, that my reaction to Three Atmospheric Studies was almost entirely on an intellectual level, in that I never found myself lost in it but almost always fascinated and challenged by it. I had wanted to see what kind of "work" William Forsythe made, and am most pleased that I did.
Describing it is easy and hard. It's in three parts. Part I is movement—modern dance and fight choreography, mostly—performed to no music or sound other than the dancers' breathing and whatever noise is produced as their body parts hit the stage. It depicts, we are told at the outset, the arrest of a young man. It's a restless, raucous, endless confrontation. We can't tell what side anybody's on. The fighting never ceases.
Part II is almost a play; in it, a woman is telling an official-looking man about how her son was arrested, and he translates her account into Arabic. Simultaneously, another man, behind her, translates other images from unseen "compositions" into movement. Eventually the two sets of actions merge. It becomes clear that the woman is part of the story the second man is trying to convey, but it becomes increasingly hazy as to exactly where she fits in. Whose mother, exactly, is she?
Part III, the shortest of the segments, depicts the aftermath of a catastrophe—an invasion of some kind. Parts of buildings and parts of bodies are scattered everywhere; we don't see them, but they're identified with eerie detachment by one of the speakers on stage. Meanwhile, a woman—that same mother—dances her anguish while a military or government official with—is it a Texas accent?—tries to assuage her woes.
Part III, accompanied by a spectacularly vivid and visceral soundscape composed of voices and noises (created by Dietrich Kruger, Niels Lanz, Andreas Breitscheid, Olivier Pasquet, and Manuel Poletti and constituting one of the most remarkable artistic achievements on a New York stage this season), is breathlessly compelling, moment to moment; in places almost moving. The earlier parts in contrast feel much more cerebral, but they inform the finale in the most fundamental way, making the three movements of this work more unified and cohesive than I expected them to be at the intermission. All three parts essentially tell the exact same story—in different ways, from different perspectives. The notion of translation, made explicit in Part II, runs through all of Three Atmospheric Studies, in its text and subtext: this is, among other things, a theatre piece about renderings of reality in the media and in the mind.
It's also about movement and its absence; especially in Part I but throughout, the work is punctuated with frequent freezes, emulating a snapshot and perhaps reminding us that our experience in the world feels continuous but is in fact a series of discrete messages/images that we have to process as they confront us.
It's also about technique. These performers move in ways that are sometimes beautifully graceful and sometimes deliberately and unnaturally exaggerated. David Kern and Jone San Martin, who dance in Parts II and III, stand out among an extraordinary ensemble.
Three Atmospheric Studies is a meditation on war, of course; but its resonance for me came more from the ways it made me think about the topic rather than from some particular (though quite evident) anti-war stance. Forsythe and his collaborators push the boundaries of genre here and also push their audience into new patterns of perceiving and processing what's put before them on the stage.