This Week at BAM: The Grown-Ups Come to Town

Karina Smulders and Chris Nietvelt in “Cries and Whispers.” Photo by Jan Versweyveld.

I don’t entirely want to slag down the programming at BAM’s Next Wave Fest thus far, but I wasn’t just excited or interested in the shows this week, I needed them. The theater programming has had its moments, SABAB’s Speaker’s Progress a good play hampered by surtitles, and Robert Wilson’s Threepenny Opera, being little more than an exercise in style, was at least fun and cool to look at. But the dance? Ranging from inexplicable (Compagnie Thor) to predictable (Cloud Gate) to promising but a bit disappointing (Beijing Dance Theater), it left something to be desired.

But this week, the festival came out guns blazing with a pair of fantastic pieces from Belgian director Ivo van Hove and choreographer William Forsythe.

As much as I liked William Forsythe’s I don’t believe in outer space (through Oct. 29), there was a small part of me that couldn’t help but smirk at the thought, as I watched it, that it was a giant ego trip. This is a work he’s described as “A look at my life without me,” that takes as its leitmotif the lyrics to “I Will Survive” (hence the title, from the lines “And now you’re back/from outer space”), which the performers repeat throughout.

But of course, even if it is a giant ego trip (and there are certainly more subtle interpretations), Forsythe is the sort of artist one can forgive for it. This was my first time seeing his work onstage, and it did not disappoint.

Much of the credit goes to Dana Casperson. I don’t really know what I expected her to be like, but a short, spunky, irrepressible ball of energy that could act as well as she danced was not it. I’d read about her opening scene performance, in which she performs a dialogue (with herself), alternating between a mousy housewife and her  unexpected demonic, guest, but it still wowed me. And the way she moves is incredible. Among a company of highly talented movement artists, she still stood out.

David Kern, Esther Balfe, and Ander Zabala in I don’t believe in outer space (photo by Dominik Mentzos)

The choreography itself was compelling, both fluid and harshly abbreviated all at once. Extensions never fully extended, but would shift into a turn or twist out into a step, creating a sense of constant flux–actions that disorientingly never quite seem to be completed. It was, in a way, vaguely reminiscent of some of the work from Ralph Lemon’s How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere last year on the same stage.

Ultimately, the piece revolves around absence. The space metaphor is apt: it’s as if the dancers, the dialogue, the set pieces (mainly small round-ish foam lumps that start out in a linear pattern and are kicked and thrown about the stage over the course of the show) are all astronomical objects that have suddenly found themselves adrift in space, spiraling chaotically outwards once the mass they orbited disappears.

I watched thoroughly entertained if never particularly emotionally engaged with the work. Which, yes, one might see as a negative, rendering the show little more than highbrow entertainment. But even so, it’s smart and compelling. My only slight disappointment, personally, was that it didn’t capture me quite the same way Pina Bausch’s Vollmond did last year, where I spent the two-plus-hour performance captivated. Perhaps today, Forsythe’s style and approach is so ingrained in dance that it loses some of the thrill, or perhaps his approach is just more cerebral.

Ivo van Hove’s Cries and Whispers (through Oct. 29) is oddly bifurcated by a long scene that occurs only about a third of the way through. A stage adaptation and reimagining of Ingmar Bergman’s film of the same name, the first part follows the last agonizing day in the life of a dying woman, while the  latter part explores the unhappy, unfulfilling lives of her sisters. The reason this scene splits the piece so decisively is because it starkly contrasts with the rest, which is almost too busy with an elaborate set, multiple video feeds, a mess of blue paint thrown about the space, and an intense industrial score.

Compared to all that business, the bifurcating scene is a study in simplicity and silence. For some twelve long minutes, three women and two men clean up the aftermath of the prolonged death and prepare for the funeral. They wash the body, launder the soiled sheets, carefully fold the linens, shroud the corpse, all in silence. It’s a beautiful study of quotidian domesticity, stripped of the aesthetic tricks employed through the rest of the piece, which recalls the beautiful sequence from Vittorio di Sica’s 1952 film Umberto D., that follows a working class woman’s morning routine. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Bergman cited this movie as his favorite.) In short, the scene plays out as a beautiful trick, by which van Hove translated a filmic effect to the stage.

So I was surprised when, the day after the show, I read in Gothamist’s informative interview with van Hove that this scene was, in fact, his most substantive addition to Bergman’s original (I have not seen the film). But upon reflection (and I did a lot of that; I actually left the theater a little disappointed by the show and only the next day found myself deeply engaged with it), I realized that it makes perfect sense: the scene is central to the metaphorical language van Hove develops within the work. If death necessarily makes us reflect on what constitutes a “good life,” then the very concreteness of these images can be re-purposed throughout when comparing the unhappiness of the sisters’ experience to the more fulfilling one of their departed sibling.

Bergman’s film was set on an estate in the late 19th century. The dying woman, Agnes, who never married, is attended by an older maid and caregiver, Anna, and her married sisters Karin and Maria. Van Hove has translated the story into the present, and built the piece conceptually around an idea he discovered examining Bergman’s source material. There was no script drafted for the film. Rather, Bergman wrote a 40-some page prose work that the actors worked off of, which contained the nugget, largely absent from the movie, that Agnes is an artist. Van Hove makes this the focus in his version, set in the present: his Agnes (Chris Nietvelt) is a painter and video artist who continues working even as she declines.

The set (by Jan Versweyveld) is a deconstruction of Agnes’s apartment. A huge house-shaped frame, suspended above the stage, is lowered onto it at the end, creating a visual image of how the show explores small lives and intimate domestic details. As the work opens,  Agnes is sleeping on a hospital bed, maintained by modern medical equipment, with one of her video cameras trained on her with a live feed to a projection upstage, offering a detailed view of her anguished sleep. As her sisters drowse and Anna (Karina Smulders), re-envisioned as a younger nurse (and possibly Sapphic love interest) does yoga downstage, Agnes wakes, rises, and relieves herself in a medical waste bucket before collapsing in anguish.

In quick succession we see her go through her last agonizing hours and die. The bulk of show comes after the silent interregnum, as we follow Karin (Janni Goslinga) and Maria (Halina Reijn) through their unhappy lives. Maria is seemingly immature, unhappily married and carrying on an affair with Agnes’s doctor. In one scene, child-like, she throws herself at Karin as though seeking support and sisterly love, only to rebuffed by her emotionally closed-off sister. Karin, for her part, is unhappily married to a cold and rather ass-hole-y guy. She’s shut down as a matter of mental and emotional protection–Maria’s loving embraces almost seem to cause her physical pain, while physical pain (in one horrendous moment, she appears to all but circumcise herself with broken glass, blood running freely down the insides of her legs) serves as a release for her.

Much of piece is hallucinatory and dream-like, easing smoothly into a phantasmagoria in which both sisters encounter and draw their boundaries with Agnes’s ghostly presence. And the piece ends, house having descended on the setting, with a monologue from the now dead Agnes. Agnes, in her own telling, never really “lived” like her sisters did, because she gave herself over to her art. But her sisters’ lives bear painful resemblance to a prolonged version of her own death, asking provocative questions over how to define a life lived fully.

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