Dance Review: William Forsythe’s Mind/Body Art Show

One thing I liked so much about this show, besides the mental and physical challenges, was its use of really simple and mundane materials.

William Forsythe: Choreographic Objects at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA, through February 24.

William Forsythe, “The Fact of Matter,” 2019. Installation view, “William Forsythe: Choreographic Objects,” at  the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston. Photo: Liza Voll

By Marcia B. Siegel

Last Tuesday at the preview of the ICA’s new exhibition, Choreographic Objects, William Forsythe noted that ballet is the art of the possible and the impossible. The show demonstrates Forsythe’s out-of-the-box mind. Trained as a ballet dancer, he thinks of ballet as a set of moves that the body both remembers and envisions. But the show is not primarily — or even at all — about ballet. Forsythe has developed a series of what might be called teaching exercises, triggers that prompt us to explore what we think we know about our bodies.

The preview audience arrived in the first gallery to be confronted by a wall-sized reflection of itself, like a big fun-house mirror. We were encouraged to make some big moves. Finding yourself in the crowded wall wasn’t easy. The cameras that picked up your moves were programmed to distort images, thus translating your waving arm into big loops and swoops. A slight delay in transmission further separated what you thought you were doing from the instant when you perceived the result. Forsythe called this “unself-conscious choreographing.” If I’d had more time and the gallery to myself, I might have been more conscious about it.

In the room titled “Fact of Matter,” 600 gymnastic rings were hung at different heights from the ceiling. The idea was to traverse the room without stepping on the floor. Based on pictures I’d seen, I couldn’t wait to play this game. The minute I stepped on the lowest ring, I discovered I couldn’t trust it with my whole weight. Until then, I’d thought I had the strength and flexibility to maneuver across this jungle of ring-trapezes.

Some of the rooms were given over to films meant to debunk our fixed ideas about ourselves in relation to gravity or about how the body lines itself up in space. In one film, Forsythe seemed to be walking on the ceiling, recalling Fred Astaire’s dance in Royal Wedding (1951). In another, he pressed his hands on two tables or shelves. Slowly he flew a few feet up and rested on a wall behind him. Tricks with the camera allowed these illusions.

The “Differential Room” contained five or six blackboards with instructions chalked on them in neat capital letters. Each set asked you to try some seemingly simple exercise that tested your coordination. Like looking right while turning to the left. Or walking seven steps and then backing up again to the same spot with your eyes closed. The ones I tried reminded me of physical therapy tasks posed to stroke survivors, to activate the disturbed connections between body and brain.

In one gallery a feather duster was there to be picked up and held still. Impossible. The feathers trembled no matter how hard the mover tried to steady it. Forsythe explained this was a reverberation from the holder’s heartbeat, “a primitive MRI.” Nearby, a door led into what might have been another room. If you tried to open the door, you discovered it weighed maybe three times more than an ordinary door, and you’d have to shift your own weight to make it move. The ICA’s outer doors also used to require extra heft. Before they installed automatic switches I’d have to squat and pull back on my legs to get the necessary traction.

One gambit I didn’t try was a room with a three-foot-high ceiling. My chronic claustrophobia wasn’t up to that challenge, but by crouching down, I could see into the cavern where fellow audience members were crawling, rolling, and conducting cautious explorations.

Several chunks of twisted five-inch-wide tape loops invited the gallery-goer to make knots of the already knotted fabric. And in the next room a film was showing. “Alignigung” recorded a duet between two nearly naked men entwined with each other against a white background that had neither floor nor walls. With the camera moving imperceptibly, the men slowly changed their relationship without relinquishing their full body contact. In a tumbling clinch, they seemed to be floating in space.

“Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time” was the title of the last gallery, a room full of 88 gently swinging pendulums. What you perceive on entering the room is the light, and the long, swinging cables, and the quiet clicking of the metal boxes (compressed air cylinders, I learned later) that held the cables as they slid back and forth with irregular timing, along short tracks. The small pendulums (builders’ plumb bobs) were heavier than they seemed; I found this out when one of them bumped my ankle as I wove through the moving forest.

One thing I liked so much about this show, besides the mental and physical challenges, was its use of really simple and mundane materials. Each room concentrates on a single triggering idea with many possible outcomes. It was like a dance class that doesn’t require you to strive for one standard. Carrying out the exercises wasn’t like performing either, though there might have been 50 people in the room with you. I didn’t have performance jitters about the audience’s reaction, because I had to concentrate on my own actions and the feedback I was getting from them.

I was curious about those clicking cylinders on the tracks that moved the pendulums and made the room so musical. Before I left I asked around. No one could really tell me. Finally, I found some technical workers who were repairing one of the cables. They assured me that the gadgets were all programmed by computers. But when I asked how the computers knew what to do, they couldn’t answer that.

Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at The Boston Phoenix. She is a contributing editor for The Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims—The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. She has contributed two selections to Dance in America, the latest edition in the Library of America’s “Reader’s Anthology” series.

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