Last night, I went to see another piece by Forsythe, this time at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. My usual dance friends were all busy, so I managed to convince my friend and fellow co-worker, Jonathan, who rarely goes to dance events, to accompany me. This task proved to be quite difficult since the website described the work as involving “audience participation.” When you’re a ballroom dancer and you invite your very dance-shy friends to socials at your studio promising them they can simply sit and watch all the action, only to get there and have everyone and their dog dragging them kicking and screaming out onto the dance floor, then go and invite them to an audience participatory dance event, they simply won’t trust you. I had to promise him on my life that this was a world-class concert dance company and the only ones doing the actual dancing would be the professionals.
Anyway, You Made Me a Monster was, like Three Atmospheric Studies, dance theater, and involved not only dance but other elements of theater as well, this time sculpture, sound effects, and words (this time not spoken but written, and projected from a video monitor onto a screen). The theme was the devastating effects of cancer on the body.
A group of 80 of us walked into a room where about 10 or so tables were set up, each bearing a partially constructed model of a human skeleton made from cardboard pieces. Guides divided us into smaller groups, took each group to a different table, and directed us to build off of the partly put-together puzzle, but not in a logical way. In other words, a spine should not resemble an actual spine, but the audience-member should twist and bend the carboard bone so that it made an artful design, then attach it to the model not where it “should” go on a “normal” human body, but in a more unconventional, surprising place. If we liked, we could also take some of the pieces of white paper below the table and trace the shadows made by the distorted model body.
Okay. Can you pick the lawyers out of the art crowd?… Yes, with us, this proved almost as bad as if we’d been asked to dance. While everyone else at our table enthusiastically went to work, Jonathan and I looked at each other, picked up a cardboard piece, looked quizzically at it, surreptitiously regarded the instructions we were told to pay no attention to, looked at each other again hopeless confusion covering our faces. Beginning to stress out about looking like a couple of idiots, I finally shrugged my shoulders and started bending and twisting a femur. Jonathan frowned at what I think was a collarbone, then put it down and excused himself to go to the bathroom for the next ten minutes. He’s never coming with me to a “dance event” again, I know it… In the end, I contributed to our table’s body by placing a very long, twisty bone protruding straight up from the center. It looked more amusing than anything else.
About ten minutes into our “body-building” project, shrill, screeching sounds began to emerge from the speakers, and dancers, three in all, came out, approached a table (each a different one), and began conveying through movement the design we’d created with our “bodies.” Their movement was much like that of the mother and diplomat’s assistant that I described in Three Atmospheric Studies — twisted, distorted, and contorted to grotesque, misshapen effect. I recognized the dancers from Atmospheric Studies, since I’d just seen it.
Funny thing, Matt Murphy had told me one of his favorite dancers from Atmospheric Studies was “the bald guy.” That man was one of the dancers here. I hadn’t noticed him much at Atmospheric Studies, since he didn’t “play” one of the main characters. Here, he took my breath away. Matt was so right! Dancers … they do notice dancing! With me, I guess supreme dance skill has to be shoved right in my face for me to see it…
After finishing at the tables, the dancers went to the front, stage area, and danced behind three separate stands each holding a piece of paper with a tracing an audience-member had made of the shadows of their model. They resembled musicians playing instruments while reading music sheets.
Behind them was a screen, onto which was projected a series of sentences, each running across the screen one by one. This use of words was somewhat ineffective to me. Every once in a while, I’d see solitary words or phrases that shouted-out to me, like “xenophobia,” “seeds of one’s internal destruction,” “reproductive organs were removed,” “grasp of space … uncanny, delirious,” “repulsive, occult, lethal,” Aliens” etc. etc. But I couldn’t focus on the words because that would take my concentration away from the dancers, and I didn’t want to do that. So, I only got an intermittent sensory effect from various words or sentence parts, without understanding how they fit together into a fuller narrative. I would have much preferred the words to have been spoken. There were sound effects blaring over the speakers as well, but to have the words on top of the sound effects would have enabled me to better understand them, since I feel that sounds can better compete with each other than visuals. You can only look at one thing at a time!
I noticed right before leaving that the pieces of paper on top of and underneath the tables contained those same sentences. I snatched one and put it into my bag. I’m not sure if they were there for us to take, but I’m very glad I did, because I read it on my subway ride home, and it made the performance all the more sorrowfully compelling to me. A man, whether it’s Forsythe I’m unsure, tells about his wife’s illness then death from cancer of her reproductive organs. The woman, a dancer, had been bleeding profusely, obviously weakening her and making her unable to perform. Her doctor, who happened to be a woman, told her it was just that she was dancing too much — obviously a judgment laced with sexism and devastatingly destructive medical inaccuracies — something with which a few of us are just a bit familiar. He goes on to talk about what a “dance genius” his wife was: “She had been able to reach into the profound heart of dancing and bring it to light…” The two were working on a piece about xenophobia, in response to several murders of political refugees in Germany. She had likened her cancer to xenophobia, which “constitutes a fear that the seeds of one’s internal destruction reside in a foreign body…” One thing I love about Forsythe is his ability to merge and analogize seemingly disparate things to shed new light on both. The “story” ends when, years after the woman has died, the man and his children began to assemble a cardboard jigsaw puzzle-like model of a human skeleton given to the wife before her death by a friend. They did not follow instructions, however, but “randomly bent, folded and attached the various intricate pieces until there was a model of something I understood. it was a model of grief.”
Amazing writing central to the piece that I thought should have been more central to the performance. As Jonathan and I were walking to the subway, I said that the dancing seemed one-note to me. He said he thought it was thematic and he enjoyed it overall and didn’t need a narrative with a big-bang climax. It WAS thematic and I didn’t need those things either, but I still wished there would have been something beside all the images of distorted, mangled, devastated bodies. I wished there would have been some beauty somewhere. I guess I found that in this writing, which was beautifully written. I just don’t know how many people saw the pieces of paper to pick up before leaving, so I don’t know how many people missed out on it.
One last note, on gender: two of the dancers here were men, one a woman. I thought it was interesting that Forsythe used male dancers to portray a woman’s illness from a feminine form of cancer. He also used female dancers in traditionally male roles in Atmospheric Studies — ie: a diplomat. This is interesting to me, this kind of playing with gender roles and assignments, unless I am reading too much into it. However, there was one line in this written story that struck me. After the woman’s cancer-ridden reproductive organs were removed, the man says, “I noticed afterward, she no longer smelled like a woman.” He goes on to talk about how, once she started on a course of radiation therapy, she began to “bend” “los[ing] the ability to fully lengthen her body” as a dancer must. So, the cancer depleted her of both her ‘womanness’ and her ‘dancerness’ — the two things that defined her, at least to the man (who is the one, after all, left to speak for her). But the line about the reproductive organs and “smelling like a woman” bothered me. It’s horrible for a woman to lose her reproductive organs — it’s horrible for anyone to have to lose any of their organs — and I definitely think doctors have been too haste to recommend hysterectomies and mastectomies and have done so out of pure and simple laziness over having to deal with the complexities of our bodies. But what exactly does ‘a woman’ smell like? Do we all smell the same? Are we all one thing, are we all defined by the same thing — our reproductive organs?