Feature: Ballett Frankfurt 01

Friday 7 April 2006

Ballet Frankfurt’s
Artifact@ Sadler’s Wells 3 – 5 Nov. 01

In 1984 William Forsythe’s ‘Artifact’ opened the floodgates on his company’s inventive obscurity. Today it hardly causes the outcry it did at its premiere, but it remains a haunting reconstruction of the bridge between movement and narrative linearity. The three protagonists in the first and last acts try to build Babel towers of human relationships that ultimately collapse sending domino shockwaves through two massive rows of superbly-trained dancers. The trademark movements of this body-made ‘orchestra’ create a kinetic polyphony of hands and feet that literally blow wind to the audience.

In one of the two middle acts,the dancers are reduced to a uniformed canvas of semiotic gestures and plumes of shadows rising like smoke against the stage wall. Their expressive duets depict the lost fight to communicate as Nathan Milstein’s violin gives life to an invisible Nero playing along while ‘I’ — ‘You’ patterns vaporize on a stage burning in fire-like light.

Being more than a time capsule of postmodern angst, this is a work that transforms theatrical experience to a live entity. No matter how many times the curtain falls and rises, the ‘Artifact’ will be there before and after our visit.
Evan Theods
The dictionary definition for ‘Artefact’ — ‘man made-object’ — is one of the keys to understanding this performance. William Forsythe, the ‘auteur’ of this object, is credited for the choreography, stage, lighting and costumes. In his quest for the ‘total artist’, his ‘Artifact’ challenges our perceptions by altering theatrical conceptions.

Three characters remain constant through the performance: an opera singer and an old man with a megaphone who deconstruct the language with incoherent discourses, and a mysterious, mute, white-powdered woman. The thirty-some ensemble enters and exits the stage performing complex and virtuoso choreography or simple and basic ballet steps. Throughout the second act, a slant on classical conventions, sudden curtain drops cut off the view and we hear the dancers moving without seeing them. Mesmerizing pas de deux show the women almost falling off pointe while endlessly outstretching their limbs.

The last act, darker in themes and structure, reveals what lies behind the ‘artefact’. Abrupt contrasts between light and obscure scenes allow us to see parts — but not the whole. Forsythe tells us that nothing is as we think in this own-man universe.

‘Artifact’ was the first full-length piece that William
Forsythe choreographed for Ballett Frankfurt in 1984. When shown in England today, it still manages to excite the audience. Why?

One of the answers is the way it often reverses the conventional performer-audience relationship. For example, Act IV, is danced with some dancers facing upstage. When they form into two powerful straight lines, only the stage-right line dominates by discriminating against dancers of certain body height; the dancers who line up on stage left simply disregard such rules. The tradition of an orderly stage is further challenged by men partnering each other, which dismantles the presumed sexist balletic order.

This logical disorder contrasts the chaotic setting in Act III: the curtain went up in the middle of the interval’. A non-dancer’s repetition of senseless yet grammatically correct sentences further confuses the confusion. Interestingly, this rule within chaos is reinforced by individuals stepping ‘in’ and ‘out’ of several paper screens, which creates the following pattern: whenever a screen falls, a woman will be dancing in front of another screen immediately behind. The ‘delayed’ curtain drop after the ‘end’ of the act neatly echoes its ‘early’ uplift.

Despite its being created over fifteen years ago, this seemingly unorganized yet systematically crafted ‘Artifact’ still serves to bombard today’s stagnant British (dance) culture.
Jane Wong

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