Follow the Hidden Line

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Peer into the eyes of an athlete or artist performing at her best and you can see into infinity—she’s entered a transcendent state where time slows, perceptions are sharpened, and connections are clear. Artists know the feeling. Writers catch the drift. Dancers bring this daily to the stage. There’s a moment when you are locked-in and everything works.

Chasing this feeling while researching the two ballets that will be featured in this season’s Sensorium, I spent many happy hours rolling through tape of William Forsythe—both his work and his interviews.

Here are two different sketches of William Forsythe super-imposed on top of each other. Each drawing alone was fine, but together (one atop the other) finally revealed an image that seemed to move a little bit, almost re-animated in the tiny time gap between poses. You can almost sense he’s about to lift his gaze and speak. In this case he did, the next moment he said “I do not want to see steps, I need to see you shape time.”

Here are two different sketches of William Forsythe superimposed on top of each other. Each drawing alone was fine, but together (one atop the other) finally revealed an image that seemed to move a little bit, almost re-animated in the tiny time gap between poses. You can almost sense he’s about to lift his gaze and speak. In this case he did. The next moment he said, “I do not want to see steps; I need to see you shape time.”

Through the expert guidance of the team at SF Ballet, especially Ballet Master Ricardo Bustamante, I was able to pick up on a very specific trail in his work.

It was a scent of genius that I was able to track late at night, once immersed in his work. Forsythe gave me clues and led me through the forest by presenting one piece of the puzzle after another. When it finally hit me it was astonishing. Birthed within his work is a second work—a hidden line that articulates shifting contrapuntal complements that articulate both the language of ballet and the human condition.

If this sounds obtuse—hang in there—let me try again. His work shows us unexpected relationships and these little jolts give us a sense of what it means to be human, to be alive, to experience time.

Chasing this scent is a wild feeling, like falling in love, catching a wave, or being happily drunk on wisdom. Why does it happen with his work and not always with others?

The reason? Forsythe is not entertaining us, but co-creating with us as we watch and listen. He’s using our minds as the finishing element to complete the piece. He’s counting on our memories, associations, and imaginations as the final step. We are his unseen dancers. And our role is essential.

Unstack the nesting dolls of co-creation and you see a long list of collaborators: the choreographer is collaborating with the composer, the dancers, the musicians, and the designers, for sure—but the thrilling insight is that the artists are also collaborating with us, the audience.

Forsythe’s Pas/Parts 2016 exists on stage, certainly, but the final artwork is constructed uniquely in the minds of each audience member—experienced anew by each person, to be co-constructed by the performers and the audience. We are both a witness to the art and its vessel/final state.

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Storyboards for my curtain-opener for Sensorium, where I’ll do my best to prepare the audience for the phenomenal ballets that are about to happen.

Forsythe’s counterpoints on stage, such as pairing harsh sounds with gentle movements or slow arms with fast feet, are triggers to elicit additional connections, relationships, and associations in our minds as we watch and listen. Instead of presenting a single story, he presents triggers to elicit the potentially endless and specifically personal stories each of us carry within us.

The dancers experience this too; sometimes they create unsaid narratives to help inform the choices for subtle elasticity in their timing and reactions. Forsythe does this as well—as he describes the process of subdividing each moment to unpack the possibilities all while encouraging the dancers to find a second hidden music in the actual music that’s played.

Listening carefully to the rehearsal footage, I could just make out the drift of a little melody that Forsythe was humming, even during the most abstract moments in the music. He was finding an essential path—what musicians call the line—which is not quite a melody, but something more essential—and leading us through it.

Contrapuntal complements to the human condition

Contrapuntal complements to the human condition

We see these hidden connecting lines every day. Such as that moment when the sounds of heavy traffic and construction noise suddenly seem like a symphonic masterwork. Or when the wind shakes the branches of a tree and the visual results look like music you can almost hear. When pedestrians seem choreographed through the windshield of a cab, or when you accidently play two videos at the same time and discover a third voice that emerges from the blend.

Still from my curtain-raiser for Sensorium 2016

Still from my curtain-raiser for Sensorium 2016

If there’s one piece I wish I could physically witness every few weeks, to re-calibrate my senses and to remind me of the hidden connections in my own humanity, it would be Pas/Parts 2016. It’s strong medicine for the human condition.

Join us at Sensorium for Forysthe’s Pas/Parts 2016, Possokhov’s Swimmer, instant couture, video sculptures, a dance party, a new twist on virtual reality, and more.

Yours in art,
James Buckhouse

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