A few years ago I went to Barnum and Bailey and Ringling Brothers three ring Circus in New York and very spectacular it was too. The only problem was that there was so much happening that if you looked in one direction you missed what was going on in another. William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing was rather like that. Frenetic hardly describes it. It starts with twenty metal framed tables being noisily arranged on stage to form, what is virtually, another stage. And the action never stops, jumping on and off, sliding and spinning around, the fourteen dancers hardly have time to catch their breath as Tom Willems’ unrelenting, mainly percussive score, played live by Niels Duursma and Niels Mudde, drives them on.
One Flat Thing was the final part of a trilogy by celebrated American choreographer William Forsythe, together called Woven State, which the equally celebrated Nederlands Dans Theater is presenting in a re-arranged schedule at the new Amare in The Hague.
The first piece was enigmatically called N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N. Danced on the vast black space which is the Amare’s Dance Theatre stage it was rather disconcertingly performed to complete silence. It can be alarming to be robbed of one of ones senses but the effect is that it concentrates the others. One was aware of every squeak of the feet on the floor, of every breath and every slap of flesh touching flesh, every nuance of movement. The twelve dancers (the twelve Ns, I guess) were all in more or less street clothes with lots of track-suit bottoms in evidence. There was much intertwining, with arms playing an important part. Legs were also tangled, putting me in mind of the old three-legged race we use to have at school sports days when I was a child. Oddly, Thom Willems was also credited with music for the piece, even though the only deliberate sound was the ensemble giving one loud collective sigh as the curtain fell.
But for me the high-spot of the show was the 1995 equally enigmatically titled Of Any If And. This really demonstrated Forsythe’s creative genius. The curtain rose to reveal the familiar black stage but at either side, at the back, were a man and a woman sitting motionless beside a large black box. In front of them was an empty music stand. From the boxes emerged our two dancers in a piece which was an extended pas de deux. Mainly classical in style to more music by Mr Willems, the two dancers were unfazed by the next development. Lowered from above the stage about a dozen batons slowly descended. Attached to each one were three or four cards each bearing a random word, together making a meaningless phrase – hence the title of the piece. The batons then took it in turn to stay down for a few moments while the others disappeared into the darkness above. This was like the Surrealists’ party game cadavre exquis in which each member of the group would write a few words or do part of a drawing on a piece of paper before passing it on to the next participant who would add his own contribution without seeing what preceded it. In the final reveal the poem would be read to the amazement and delight of all concerned. The randomness had its own logic which defied common sense – but just because we don’t understand something doesn’t mean it has no meaning.
Of Any If And was brilliant, just the sort of brilliance we have come to expect from NDT. Woven State works well as a programme with each of the components demonstrating that bringing together three random pieces can make a very satisfactory and meaningful whole. Michael Hasted 4th December 2021
The dates and times have been rescheduled as a result of the new restrictions. They can be found on the NDT website here