Forsythe and Shawn: American artists in London

It's rare for a living artist to be the focus of individual celebration, outside of a major arts festival. But this spring, London has allowed audiences to focus on two idiosyncratic American artists and provided a spotlight on their often complex work.

The differences in reception have been marked. Although critical opinion was divided on the merits of recent work by Frankfurt-based choreographer William Forsythe, no-one seems to have questioned the wisdom of devoting a season to his work. For New York playwright Wallace Shawn, however, the reaction has been far more mixed. Some critics have responded positively, but others have dismissed the season as a vanity project, and at the performances I attended, audiences were voting with their feet. Maybe this does nothing more than suggest a difference between Wallace and William - or perhaps it points to a rift in approach between audiences for mainstream dance and theatre.

It certainly suggests that the dance world is far more open to uningratiating work. Forsythe's Decreation, for example, was a very tough watch, but most everybody at Sadler's Wells stayed to the end and there was a whooping curtain call. For all of their distinguished casts (Miranda Richardson, Jennifer Tilly, Jane Horrocks, Clare Higgins), the Shawn plays at the Royal Court have been marked by walkouts - on Monday, half of the audience for Grasses of a Thousand Colours had melted away by the third act, and there were also some noisy removals during the interval-less Aunt Dan and Lemon.

Why should this be? What do the two seasons tell us about each of these fascinating artists? And is the theatre world less willing to experiment than dance? More after the click:

A season like this helps round out, and possibly readjust, our view of an oeuvre. This is particularly important when it's an artist from abroad, whose work is seen in starts and patches (as I discussed when seeing Robert Wilson's latest show). After the Forsythe season, I've shifted my longheld view that he's a genius choreographer with a side interest in the visual arts. He now almost seems to have become an installation artist who often works through dance.

Each piece in the season had a strong installation element: the DIY skeletons with which the audience fiddled at the beginning of You Made Me a Monster (2005); hundreds of pendulums suspended in Tate Modern in the beguiling Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time (2005); a sea of white balloons in Scattered Crowds. Even the most conventional stage piece, Decreation (2003), was an abrasively multimedia work which defied easy assimilation, dispersing activity around the wide stage perimeter, denying a single focal point. We couldn't walk around it physically, but there was a hint that repeated viewing might help in a programme note by James Woodall which confessed it only made sense to him on a third viewing.

Forsythe's brilliance has always been his openness to text, sound and image, the admission of a wider world (postmodern philosophy, war-protest indignation) into dance. Even so, none of these recent pieces contained much of purely choreographic interest - I suspect that, in a few weeks' time, I'll remember little of the movement except from an alarming close-up gurn in Monster. It's the play of space and time that animates these works, in which the spectator's body participates as significantly as the dancer's. We fold and pin cardboard bones in Monster, absorbed in our tasks; we play and drift through the balloons in Scattered Crowds.

While Focus on Forsythe offered new developments, the Shawn season is more about consolidating an established body of work: new productions by Dominic Cooke of two plays previously been seen in Britain (The Fever and Aunt Dan), plus a world premiere (Grasses). It has certainly been fascinating to see all three productions (there is also a series of rehearsed readings, including four plays from the 1970s, of which I hope to catch one or two). Shawn's looping, trancey monologues are easy to resist: they challenge notions of conventional dramatic shape and progression. They narrate past-tense experience (even posthumous, in the case of Grasses), rather than dramatise a thrilling present moment. His narrators digress, succumb to dubiously mirthful riffs or to helplessly anxious plaint. They indulge themselves.

Indeed, they pleasure themselves: Shawn delivers a rapt paean to his penis - its impressive size, its friendly demeanour - in Grasses, but this also connects to a pervasive theatrical method. Even when Shawn describes a polymorphic bath of desire - in swinging London, in feline fantasy - it isn't about connection but a distinctive form of process. His narrators think the world into being, process it through imagination. Shawn himself (in Grasses) and Clare Higgins (in The Fever) gave beady, unadorned performances, commandingly quixotic; the weakness of Cooke's production of Aunt Dan was his sidelining of Horrocks' Lemon, through whose vaunting consciousness her dubious memories should travel.

It's complex stuff, but I still can't work out why Forsythe's itchy work held audience's attention more successfully than Shawn's apparently baggy texts. Are dance audiences (and critics) more open-minded, less discriminating? Are theatre audiences (and critics) more conventional, less patient? What do you reckon?

June 4, 2009 11:02 PM | | Comments (0) |

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This page contains a single entry by Performance Monkey published on June 4, 2009 11:02 PM.

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