As the program notes for William Forsythe’s Sider – on show this week as part of Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival – meticulously explain, the score to which the dancers are performing is taken from a filmed version of an undisclosed Shakespearean tragedy. In order to physicalize the 16th-century text which, not dissimilar to music, has variations in tonality, meter and inflection, and to do so for the audience’s benefit without, as Forsythe claims, demystifying the source, the actual text is piped in, via miniature headsets, directly into dancers’ ears and remains unheard in the auditorium throughout. Therefore, what we – the spectators – experience is the language made flesh, as its rhythms reverberate through the performers bodies, accompanied only by Thom Willems’ droning, minimalistic soundscape.

Frances Chiaverini © Julieta Cervantes
Frances Chiaverini
© Julieta Cervantes

That is the proposal for this evening’s work, and it does sound fascinating – on paper. In performance, the idea very quickly falls flat on its face, much like 4-by-8 sheets of cardboard that are strewn on the stage at the beginning of the show. In addition to the cardboard, there is a bank of linear fluorescent tubes in various hues, suspended above the stage. And then there are the goofy costumes: a hodge-podge of American Apparel, tie-dye tights, Elizabethan skullcaps and ruffled neckpieces, thrift shop fare, and a few expensively flimsy bias-cut tops that look fresh off of an Antwerp runway (that, admittedly, I would love to own).

As the show begins, I can definitely observe the extent to which the Elizabethan language is being translated into the performers’ choreography. There is a recognizably muscular, jointed, quick-footed quality to it, and it manifests itself aurally as well – for instance, in the moments when dancers – sometimes just one, at other times many – rhythmically kick along the cardboard they are holding in their hands, or in several instances when they verbalize, not in English, but in an unrecognizable gobbledygook that presumably emulates the dialogue they are hearing in their earpieces. And, please don’t get me wrong – this ensemble is supremely talented, and their technical execution is spot-on, the perfection of the moments in unison having been made possible thanks to the synchronized score that is delivered to their earpieces.

However, several minutes into this exercise, a certain sameness sets in, and never leaves the room. I feel like I am witnessing beautifully trained dancers improvise while warming up for rehearsal: it is fun to watch for a while, but then I want to see them do the actual work. Imagine listening to an orchestra running scales – this usually lasts for a few minutes, prior to the conductor’s arrival: in Sider, it’s as if the conductor failed to show up for the performance, and the cacophony of scales, delivered by various instruments, goes on for 70 minutes. Or 65 too many, in my book.

If you think about it, Shakespeare’s dramas negotiate in iambic pentameter: ta-dah / ta-dah / ta-dah / ta-dah / ta-dah. He manages to make five acts of this compelling thanks to the poetic language. Strip that language down to just its rhythmic patters, devoid of meaning, and perhaps you can begin to imagine how you might want to tear your hair out several minutes into it.

With all these observation in mind, it was terribly disappointing to witness such a talented company, and such a remarkably influential choreographer – who created some of the most engaging, daring, rigorous dance works I have personally witnessed in recent years – fall so short on delivery. In spite of the ambitious concept, and high-tech behind-the-scenes gadgetry – Sider felt little more than a one-trick pony, and much like its cardboard-and-neon décor: beautifully empty.

**111