William Forsythe, much like fellow contemporary dance-maker Wayne McGregor, seems to have accumulated two almost distinct portfolios of works: there are the seminal pieces for well-established ballet companies, and there are his more experimental pieces for his own Forsythe Company.
Forsythe likes to tackle the Big Things. I don’t believe in outer space is a 2008 piece that revolves around themes of mortality and the fragility of human existence. But to describe it as such would be to make it sound more of a straightforward piece of work than it is.
The piece is essentially a series of vignettes: a street dance teacher drums up enthusiasm for her routine (which the Sadler’s Wells audience dutifully complied with); a table tennis practice session (albeit with no ping pong balls); a professor discusses his research accompanied by dramatic strings sound. These random, unrelated episodes illustrate how absurd life can be and this idea is echoed later in the piece, when we are told of things coming together and falling apart, colliding and separating “as if by chance” as the cast of dancers mirror the words spoken in their movements and formations.
Dana Caspersen deserves special commendation for leading the show. Her turn as a creepy individual who fails to grasp what is a socially acceptable way to befriend your neighbour (also played by her) was by far the funniest of all the various episodes – and that’s even before you realise that her rant at the neighbour’s hesitance was made up of the lyrics of ‘I Will Survive’.
It’s when the piece becomes more serious in tone, when it moves away from such amusing theatricalities, that Forsythe shows what has made him one of the most important choreographers of recent times. Yoko Ando’s short solo portrays the kind of vulnerability that everyone will recognise, while the duet towards the end carries a sense of doomed inevitability without ever resorting to melodrama. These understated aspects contrast sharply with the silliness elsewhere.
When these episodes are set against a backdrop of what feels like a person’s inner thoughts spoken out loud – such as the final section when Caspersen starts to talk about a place where there’s no more stopping, no more going, no more time, no more of anything you have enjoyed or experienced or loved – it is hard not to be moved. But such moments are only moments, few and far between.
I don’t believe in outer space doesn’t seem entirely sure of what it is, what it wants to be. Those expecting anything resembling a conventional work of dance may be disappointed. But seen as a piece that encompasses – while at the same time escaping – a variety of disciplines, it becomes more satisfying. At best it’s thought-provoking, Lynchian, dream-like. At its worst it’s inconsistent, unfocused and verging on the pretentious. It’s saying something that the character David Walliams played in Spaced sprang to mind more than once as I watched this.