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Thursday, June 13, 2019

When the Wall is On Stage

Photo: Michael Slobodian

By David Hsieh

In the conventional sense, the stage is defined by the space between the three visible walls and the fourth invisible wall. The three visible walls separate the theater from the real world, and the fourth wall separates the audience from the performers. A wall is a divider. It blocks the audience’s view; it reduces performing space. So setting up additional walls on stage is tricky. But when it’s done right, the effect can be quite, shall we say, theatrical.

Two upcoming engagements at BAM feature such spectacular uses of walls. When Ballet BC makes its BAM debut Jun 13—15, it will bring William Forsythe’s Enemy in the Figure. This dance incites feelings of mystery, foreboding, and excitement, often at the same time. And Forsythe’s staging is part of the magic. As Roslyn Sulcas of The New York Times described, “Making use of an undulating screen positioned diagonally across the stage, a rope that is pulsed across the floor as if indicating energy levels or secret messages, a floodlight on wheels that is manipulated by the dancers, and a ticking, brooding score by Thom Willems, Enemy in the Figure is a dark and thrilling poem about vision and perception, form and chaos.”

Alistair Spalding, artistic director of the Sadler’s Wells, rated it as one of his top six Forsythe dances. This 1989 dance came to BAM in 2001 with Ballett Frankfurt; its return by a different company is highly anticipated.

Photo: Michael Slobodian

Aurélien Bory’s particular stagecraft is to create sets that look overwhelming at first, but through highly choreographed interactions by performers, take on human qualities. In Les sept planches de la ruse (2008 Next Wave), it was a giant three-dimensional tangram; in Sans Objet (2012), a 1970 automotive robot looked like it could crush anything in its way; in Plexus (2016), a box wired with 5700 nylon strings threatened to strangle the dancer Kaori Ito. And now, in Espæce (Jun 20—22), it’s a giant black wall that seems as immovable as the Empire State Building. But somehow the five performers (Guilhem Benoit, Cochise Le Berre, Katell Le Brenn, Olivier Martin Salvan, and singer Claire Lefilliâtre) find a way to co-exist and even have fun with it.

Other BAM artists have created memorable theater works with walls. Who can forget that terrifying image in Pina Bausch’s Palermo Palermo (1991 Next Wave) when a towering concrete block wall crashed down and the dancers had to perform the rest of the show in the rubble!

Photo: Martha Swope

Sasha Waltz, another dance theater enthusiast, created similarly unsettling images in Gezeiten (2010). The set was a derelict house with crumbling walls and peeling paint. It was rendered unrecognizable after the dancers ripped apart the floorboards and set the back wall on fire. The stage world they inhabited was as unforgiving as the world outside, and yet they soldiered on.

Photo: Richard Termine

Not all walls need to be destroyed. Brooklyn-based sculptor John Emerson Bell designed a visually appealing wall for David Dorfman’s Come, and Back Again (2013 Next Wave). The 10x40 foot monochromatic wall was constructed from refuse, mementos, and found objects that evoked images of an artful junkyard or a very industrious hoarder’s home.

The “wall as view blocker” function was used to great effect in the Scottish Opera’s production of Greek (2018 Next Wave). An Oedipus story set in 1990 London, the opera has a raucously dissonant score invoking the edgy feeling of the time and the unsettling plot. A giant wall pinned the singers to a narrow lip at the front of the stage; as the wall revolved, portals passed over the strategically-placed performers. Almost every line was addressed (sometimes shouted) directly at the audience. Images worthy of London tabloids were sometimes projected on it. If “in your face” is what the creators were aiming for, they succeeded!

Photo: Richard Termine
One of the most stunning uses of a wall on BAM stage comes from Ohad Naharin’s Sadeh21 (2014 Next Wave). A low-lying beige wall lined three sides of the stage. For the entire dance it served no more than a soothing backdrop until the last 15 minutes, when, one by one, dancers emerged on top of it and fell backward into the darkness. Meanwhile, credits were projected on it like the end of the movie. The contrast of astounding and mundane, imaginary and real, left the audience not knowing if they should applaud!

Ballet BC will be at BAM Jun 13—15.

David Hsieh is a publicity manager at BAM.

© 2019, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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