Ballett Frankfurt


by Ramsay Burt

October 22-25, 2003
Sadler's Wells, London

Images by Armin Linke


For me the most immediate and exciting things about “Kammer/Kammer” were, first, the performances by Dana Caspersen and Anthony Rizzi, and second, the sheer craftsmanship with which this otherwise highly fragmented multimedia production was put together. On the one hand the dancing, acting, filming, and broadcast of live edited video seemed to relate to one another in an open ended, almost indeterminate way; but at the same time everything was evidently planned tightly and executed with extraordinary precision.

Two stories were told in monologues. Caspersen recited the Canadian poet Anne Carson's lyrical but edgy fantasy about becoming Catherine Deneuve in a film about a lesbian classics professor obsessed with The Girl, a role danced by Jone San Martin. Rizzi recited extracts from Douglas Martin's bluntly unsentimental and terse autobiographical account of his affair with a gay rock star. Common to both stories were not only same sex relations but also the alien anonymity of hotel rooms. Almost all the while there was dancing going on, usually three or four dancers weaving and crashing together, around, and on one of two big mattresses, each half hidden and surrounded by flats painted to look like bedroom walls, or single figures dancing on their own slightly to one side of Deneuve or Rizzi.

San Martin was the only figure who both danced and had a significant speaking part. I heard some people complaining afterwards that there wasn't enough dancing; I think they were mistaken. It was just that the dancing almost never became the primary focus of attention. For all the dancers' energy and inventiveness, the audience were continually distracted from it by either the seductive power of the video or the equally seductive narratives of unfulfilled gay and lesbian desire.

Initially the filming took place in the parts of the stage that were visible from the auditorium. Increasingly, however, it happened in other spaces that were largely hidden. Around the stage, painted flats were arranged to create these spaces so that it resembled a film studio. (Interestingly, the first performance in Frankfurt was at the Bockenheimer Depot, which is not in a conventional proscenium theatre.) At times, particularly when a robot camera suspended above the stage was used, the effect of this was spatially very disorienting.

Cunningham has written about his realization that there are no fixed points in stage space. Forsythe's deliberate fragmentation of stage space takes Cunningham's idea to a hyperbolic extreme. It does this by exploiting spatial disjunctions. A sense of frontality was created when Caspersen or Rizzi performed to the video camera rather than towards the audience and their image was transmitted to the big video screens on stage and hanging throughout the auditorium. Because this clashed with the 'front' of the proscenium, which the audience themselves faced, one became aware that not only are points not fixed but that they can be disturbingly multiple, belonging simultaneously to irreconcilable time spaces.

The relationship between all these elements, and with less obvious ones like the movement of flats to create temporary new spaces or to reveal previously hidden ones, defied rationalisation. It continually evaded any expectations of conventional closure, despite the personable qualities of the narrators and the hook of their narratives. The piece montaged together these various elements and experiences. At their most interesting, these produced startling and disturbing juxtapositions. But despite this openness, one could not but marvel at the meticulousness and the hard work with which everything come together: I might almost say, to fall back on an old cliché, with Germanic efficiency.

Perhaps this makes “Kammer/Kammer” sound dry and technical, but this was far from the case. At times the tone was moody and reflective, at other moments alarmingly histrionic, and this was often produced not only by the performers' modes of address, but also as a result of the kinds of spatial experiences created. At one moment Rizzi as the boy could just be seen from the auditorium sitting alone at a long trestle table right at the back of the stage reading out a painfully melancholy incident. In the central episode of the second half, Rizzi as the boy found himself having to intervene between Caspersen as Deneuve and San Martin as the object of her obsession as they literally grappled and screaming at one another, prowling round in a pathological circuit in a claustrophobic cubicle only visible from the auditorium on video or through a small gap in a wall of screens. Forsythe and his dancers really know how to pile chaos over chaos, and how to ratchet up the emotional tension.

”Kammer/Kammer” is not a playful exercise in postmodern irony that subversively destabilizes meaning in a game of clever citation and simulacra. If anything it is an attempt to go so far down the deconstructive path that it produces performative intensities that are as unbearable for today's audiences as the expressive modern dance of Wigman and Graham was in the first half of the last century. The critics who knock Forsythe (Rizzi has a cruelly brilliant dig at Anna Kisselgoff, a prominent American critic who is referred to as "Anna Kiss-of-death") may want to believe the good old days are still with us. Those were the days when dancers just danced and let critics do the philosophising.

One of the things some critics have attacked are the philosophical quotes Forsythe often places in his programmes. In most of Europe, philosophy is a central part of the educational curriculum in a way that is not the case in England and the United States. The programme for “Kammer/Kammer” comes with two quotations. The first is from Feuerbach (1804-72), a Hegelian philosopher of history whose ideas were severely criticised by Karl Marx. The passage Forsythe has found sounds curiously like Jean Baudrillard, and discusses the way modern people are only interested in artificial copies of reality and attribute an almost sacred quality to these. This is clearly connected with elements like Caspersen's strong resemblance to Deneuve, and the trompe l'oeil painting on the stage flats.

The other quote comes from Giles Deleuze (1925-95), and discusses the relationship between seeing and saying. Running through “Kammer/Kammer” is a split between what the audience see, and whether we choose to see it directly or on video, and what we hear: music, sound effects, and, of course, spoken words. (The person with a megaphone in Forsythe's “Artefact” also talked about this gap, when he welcomed the audience to 'what you think you see', etc.). Deleuze suggests that this kind of gap can only be bridged outside these forms and in another dimension.

Maybe it sounds pretentious to say that it is towards another dimension that is neither just spoken nor seen that “Kammer/Kammer” invites audiences to focus their attention. But the performance is nevertheless an invitation to go beyond the good old, familiar ways of looking at dance in order to try and find something else. As I already observed, there is a lot of dancing going on all through “Kammer/Kammer” that somehow a lot of people seemed not to notice. The dimensions that Deleuze was referring to, and which clearly interest Forsythe, are probably always there already, but we just haven't noticed them yet.

Edited by Jeff.

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