Yesterday I attended my last performance for this season's subscription to the San Francisco Ballet. It was a full-length piece, Don Quixote. Although I enjoyed it, I couldn't help but reflect on some of the other, more experimental pieces we've seen this season. The first program ended with Artifact Suite, choreographed by William Forsythe. Before I go further, I should admit from the outset that I'm relatively ignorant about ballet--my friends Toni and Brynn (with whom I attend these performances) are much more knowledgeable about choreographers, movement, and dance history. In any event, before Artifact Suite, there had been some problems with the curtain falling midway down in the midst of a performance. When the curtain fell to the stage with a loud boom in the midst of Artifact Suite, we all assumed that the curtain problems continued. When this happened repeatedly and the dancers were in perfect form and a new configuration every time the curtain went up, we began to suspect that perhaps this was part of the choreography. Still, I wasn't willing to trust that idea until it was verified by an usher after the performance. And in the midst of the piece when I still thought the curtain problems were accidental, I remember thinking, "What a great idea. A choreographer should use the curtain as part of the performance." I was and still am intrigued by the element of the surprise--how an audience, even an informed one, can be suspicious of what is happening, wondering what is choreographed and what is accidental. I'm also intrigued by the idea of re-conceiving traditional elements in choreography--the set, the costumes, the music, the movements have been mainstays of ballet for decades. But the curtain has, as well. It signals the beginning and the end of a performance, it sometimes descends in mid performance to signal breaks between segments (as it did in Don Quixote yesterday)--how brilliant to use the curtain to defamiliarize the audience and move it towards a new relationship with the performance.
Even more stunning to me was the piece Eden/Eden which we saw in March. This piece, choreographed by Wayne McGregor, was a multi-media combination of music/video/audio/dance elements. It began with clips which emphasized the main idea of the piece, cloning specifically, but more broadly what it means to be alive in an increasingly technological era. When the main dancer, the amazing Muriel Maffre, appeared, her gender was obscured by a flesh colored bodysuit and cap. Her movements were jerky, uneven, awkward, communicating an alien relationship to one's body. As other dancers, dressed and moving similarly, joined her, the effect was a disjointed, fragmented world in which harmony isn't possible. Or perhaps the point was that the offspring of technology and human intellect is at present in a developmental stage, and, like toddlers, we stumble about precariously trying to learn how to move, be, and function in a new world.
One audio clip during the piece was striking "We and all other animals are machines created by our genes." That statement still reverberates with me. We not only construct selves, our bodies, too, are constructed. Machines aren't foreign/outside of human existence, they are congruent with what (who?) we are. In an insightful review, Allan Ulrich (see URL below) comments: "The mixed vocabulary doesn’t propose a solution, but it does dare to suggest that the distinction between life as we know it and life as we manufacture it grows ever slimmer."
I didn't expect to be intellectually stimulated by ballet. I expected to enjoy the beautiful movements of impeccably trained dancers. This season has taught me that ballet is much more than this. In fact, seeing Don Quixote yesterday was anti-climatic after such an intellectually challenging season. My friend Brynn is working to establish a connection between philosophy and dance theory. Thanks, Brynn, for sharing your ideas about the "Dance of the Cyborg."
Alan Ulrich, Review of "Eden/Eden." Accessed May 6, 2007.