Three Atmospheric Studies, Sadler's Wells, London


Anti-war dance trips over itself

William Forsythe is angry. Three Atmospheric Studies, the first work this American choreographer made for his new company after leaving the Frankfurt Ballet, deals with the Iraq war, with the suffering of civilians. This political engagement is new, but Forsythe's methods are familiar, his points made through movement, fractured storytelling, layers of deliberate incoherence. Much of it is dull. When it does come into focus, it's simplistic.

Curiously, Forsythe's images of war are less extreme than his pure dance choreography. After the straining joints and extreme positions of his "ballet ballets", Three Atmospheric Studies often looks casual, if not quite laid-back. The dancers of Forsythe's own company are fast, hard-working, committed.

"My son was arrested," says Jone San Martin at the start. Then this 18-strong company rush through different groupings, silent apart from gasps of breath. Every so often, they freeze into tableaux. You have to know what you're looking for to recognise the moment of arrest, the impact of an explosion. Even then, you could miss them. As they bustle from pose to pose, Forsythe's dancers might be a movement class evoking rush hour.

In the second study, San Martin tries to tell her story to an interpreter. He picks at her words, urges her to hurry up, until she protests that he doesn't understand. At the same time, David Kern potters about, murmuring and taking poses. It becomes clear that he's describing images - pictures that we can't see, though some of them are hung up in the foyer. One is a Cranach crucifixion, another a scene of devastation in Iraq. Kern describes billowing smoke, clouds, lines and colours.

This is tanztheater, after Pina Bausch: people who don't or won't understand each other, at length, in non-naturalistic style. But the images aren't particularly vivid or expressive. The strongest is San Martin's lament. She jumps up to express her angst, screeching and staggering, her voice electronically distorted. While the sound effects make this harsher, they also distance us from her.

The third part is the most explicit, and the crudest. Kern stands by a wall, pointing out details of a painted cloud study. After some minutes, his words are drowned out, as Ander Zabala starts growling into a microphone, gargling and crowing, inarticulacy drowning out words. He sounds like an alien from a Star Wars movie. In a quieter moment, Kern starts to describe the aftermath of an explosion. When he mentions a rocket, a crater, the other dancers are knocked to the ground, acting out his words. When they fall against the wall, it echoes with the sound of explosions.

At last there's some urgency on stage, but it's framed by reductive devices. The slight, blonde Dana Caspersen mouths along to a male voiceover, which spouts self-seeking platitudes: "Apart from the ongoing state of emergency, ma'am, there is no cause for alarm." The accent is from the American South - is it Texan?

There are Europeans who want to see Americans as stupid; this time, it's a New York choreographer telling the joke. You don't have to approve of US foreign policy to find this lazy. That long speech doesn't establish a character for the voiceover. The writing just underlines the smug contradictions it has created for its enemy. Forsythe gives us the simplifications of caricature, without its energy and bite.

And caricature spreads to the whole subject. Forsythe's admirers have hailed Three Atmospheric Studies as a breakthrough for political choreography, as a work that proves that dance can take on these issues. Yet these images lack the force of a good political cartoon, with the choreographer's games and practices switching attention away from the devastation he wants to evoke. All that fragmentation might have heightened our sense of unease, of horror. Instead, it blurs and blunts it.

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