WILLIAM FORSYTHE'S Decreation at BAM
October 10th, 2009
It is an extremely difficult thing to translate ideas across languages, and perhaps more so to translate them across aesthetic forms and mediums.
In William Forsythe’s Decreation, Forsythe attempts to translate poet-translator Anne Carson’s 2005 book of poetry, essay, and opera, Decreation, into a movement and language-based performance. Given that Carson’s own Decreation is an extensive meditation on a term from the French Marxist-Anarchist theologian and modern saint Simone Weil’s mystical theology, Forsythe’s performance is a translation of a translation. It attempts to translate a subtle concept (decreation) from writing into dance, and does so at some remove from that idea’s original source (Weil’s writings).
I want to be generous to Forsythe because I know of very few choreographers who are in earnest attempting to grapple with difficult concepts through their work. The “high concept” aspects of Forsythe’s work have gotten the choreographer quite far as he has been shown in art contexts such as the Whitney Biennial, Venice Biennale, and the Louvre, and garnered prestigious titles, prizes, and commissions. With all of the resources available to Forsythe at this point in his career, he is at great liberty to take on the projects he would most like to take on. Despite the virtuosity and technological pyrotechnics of Decreation, I think Forsythe has unleashed a genii that he can’t handle, and those audiences faithful to his sources (Carson and Weil), and to dance’s ability to enact a metaphysics, pay the ultimate price.
Forsythe’s intention in Decreation seems to be to deconstruct the personal and private agonies of a relationship in meltdown. He uses some clever means to express this meltdown. One of these means is the use of a large company in which each singular performer is substitutable with the others in their collective representation of a romantic relationship. Insofar as Forsythe often has one of his performers mediating for a couple, a problem of tertiariness (thirdness) pervades the performance. Often we will see someone speaking for someone else, or apostrophizing where no one can (or will) respond. Similarly, a particular performer will often objectify another performer by posing their body for them, or interposing between a couple or cluster of performers.
Forsythe’s way of dealing with mediation no doubt derives inspiration from the second part of Carson’s essay “Decreation: How Women Like Sappho Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God” where Carson discusses the 12th century mystic Porete’s heretical book The Mirror of Simple Souls. Here Carson explains that “true” jealousy is jealousy of God’s relationship with one’s self that will not allow unmediated contact with God’s substance (God’s metaphysical reality).
In his attempt to translate this extremely subtle idea from Carson’s reading of Porete, Forsythe comes to many rather unsubtle solutions of movement, language, and audio-visual technologies. The first involves a video camera that is turned on the actors at all times, and projected on a screen at the back-center of the stage. Through a time-lapse on the video, the video feed appears out-of-joint with the actor’s physical presence on the stage—ecstatic and out-of-synch. “Ecstasy changes Sappho and changes her poem. She herself, she says, is almost dead. Her poem appears to break-down and stop.” (161) Likewise, through a series of monologues recited to the camera, performers reenact moments from a romantic relationship. The result is angst, and a histrionics unfaithful to the performance’s austere sources. This angst is compounded by a campy song sung sequentially in the style of Gospel/R&B, Broadway showtune, and Pauline Oliveros’ overtonal choirs. It is also compounded by snarky dialogue, digitally enhanced screaming, and an Arnold Schoenberg/David Tudor-like piano accompaniment.
Reading Simone Weil this past week before reviewing Decreation, it became clear to me just how unidimensional Forsythe’s rendering of Weil’s idea of decreation is. At times I want to cry reading Weil, whose pages offer metaphysical insights hard-won from her life of pain, deprivation, and self-elected martyrdom (Weil was born into an agnostic middle-class French Jewish family, yet throughout her life chose to live among and, perhaps more importantly, undergo the suffering of the poor—their work routines and social struggles). However painful romantic encounters can be, no romantic encounter can compare with Weil’s decreation, which refers to the struggle to overcome the creaturely within human existence in order to experience God as a feeling of eternal time and space. Weil’s seeking of conditions of poverty (material, sexual, physical, and otherwise) was no doubt her way of decreating, and thus, as Carson puts it, “telling” the eternal.
Truly, I believe, dance can offer such a metaphysical contact, and this is what I had wanted so badly to experience attending Decreation. Instead, what Forsythe presents is an episodic and pathos-driven history of a romantic break-up, and the various hellish states resulting from this break-up. Given the resources at Forsythe’s disposal, and the choreographer’s clear wish to make reference to Weil’s original concept, I am disappointed that Forsythe could not have shown more restraint and less pomp through his production.
What perhaps could potentialize Forsythe’s production (should he continue to reshape and reform Decreation) is a more faithful sense of poverty—the difficult poverty that Weil conveys through her concept, and that Carson gestures towards through her hybrid-genre writing: “For when an ecstatic is asked the question, What is it that love dares the self to do? she will answer: Love dares the self to leave itself behind, to enter into poverty.” (162) This poverty can not be conveyed by expressive literalism, nor necessarily by contact mics, semi-live video feeds, and the deformation of semantic language (as though Weil’s concept of decreation could be adequately expressed by physical or syntactic deformation). Forsythe came closest to this poverty to which Sappho, Weil, and Carson refer where his dancers merely danced, dancing being a condition of such poverty (when the full company danced together I was quite moved). Would that Forsythe had striven for the poverty of dance’s proper decreation, its rudiment and potential for disclosing the eternal, transcendent, and anti-human.
THOM DONOVAN edits Wild Horses of Fire weblog, and co-edits ON: Contemporary Practice, a journal committed to writings about one's contemporaries. His poetry, criticism, and scholarship have been published variously.