New York

William Forsythe, Behind The China Dogs

New York State Theater at Lincoln Center

“It is a fashion, a fury,” reported Mme de Sévigné in 1696 of the French court’s ecstatic response to the introduction, from Italy, of a new vegetable: green peas. “Impatience to eat them, the pleasure of having eaten them, the joy of eating them again, are the three questions which have occupied our princes for the last four days.” For many New York dance fans, William Forsythe was last spring’s dish of petit pois. The New York City Ballet gave us a generous first serving with the premiere of Forsythe’s Behind the china dogs, 1988, as part of the American Music Festival. Seconds and thirds were dished out in two mid-June programs performed by Forsythe’s own company, the Frankfurt Ballet. A presentation by the visiting Paris Opera Ballet of Forsythe’s in the middle, somewhat elevated, 1987, in late June should have been gut-bust time, but still the fans were whooping for more—or at least a behind-the-china-doggie-bag to last them through the summer.

Forsythe looks to have been grazing at the café of continental philosophy, and so in Steptext, 1985, a work for four dancers presented by his own company, we get a fairly didactic demonstration of the difference between langue (four opening solos in which the dancers face the audience and trace the elements of a language with arms and hands) and parole (the four converse together in movement). Balanchine abandoned mime because he felt audiences could no longer understand it; Forsythe brings it back precisely because we can’t understand it, though some in the audience may understand only too well that we’re looking at a textbook illustration of the liberated signifier. He makes rather a fetish of le regard (in Love Songs, 1979, a single black man observes the opening solos by white women); and when the curtain goes down and up again in the middle of a performance, we know a statement’s being made about closure.

These signature motifs arise in Behind the china dogs, but the weight of all the book learning is worn a bit lighter. The title even has a referent; there are dogs made of china on the stage, although the dancers perform in front of them. Like Serenade (the 1934 ballet in which Balanchine announced his American classicism) and Agon (the 1957 work that defined it), Behind the china dogs is a territorial ballet; it stakes a claim on time and space instead of merely taking place within them. The ballet begins and ends with eight dancers on stage; at the conclusion, four dancers define the corners of a world, the other four inhabit it. Their dance has shown the conquest of that world, though it is unclear whether the dancers are conquerors or merely agents through which a territorial impulse is carried out. Leslie Stuck’s score features sounds of barking dogs spliced together with a Louis Armstrong tune and snippets of an Anton von Webern string quartet. (Armstrong’s voice repeats, “Got the heebie-jeebies, yeah,” which may be how Forsythe feels on stepping into Balanchine’s haunted ballroom.) Behind the dogs is a wall, so perhaps this is the Great Wall of China and the dancers invading Mongol hordes (the movements are fleetingly martial), or perhaps Forsythe sees himself as a Mongol invading Balanchine’s turf. The score suggests that the dancers are possessed, perhaps rabid, but they execute steps with the cool detachment of postindustrial machines.

In Agon, Balanchine drew on the court dances of 17th-century France (from which the canons of classical ballet would shortly emerge) as a structural framework for an affirmation of “pure dance” values. In Behind the china dogs, Forsythe draws on Agon’s off-balance movement and extends it into an off-balance choreography of discontinuous events; rupture is the signal element in Forsythe’s restricted vocabulary. A man canters diagonally across the stage, waving an arm behind his head as if to urge the troops to follow him into the breach. It doesn’t faze him that there are no troops, and he clearly relishes the breach. A triad of women advances from the back of the stage, changes course and retreats into the wings. A man steps out on stage, waits for another dancer to finish a variation, then walks off instead of following it with his own; or, rather, his variation is not to dance just now. These reversals amplify rather than retard the momentum propelling the ballet; they follow a logic, not of chance or improvisation, but of keeping one’s options open in a world of limited choices.

Herbert Muschamp