“As If By Chance, All Kinds of Stuff All Over the Place”: William Forsythe’s I Don’t Believe in Outer Space

Time is a strange force. As a child, I remember listening to Prince’s “1999” on the radio and thinking how remote that year seemed. It was the future: distant, unimaginable, unimportant. Fast forward to December 31, 1999: I’m 15 years old, stuck at home watching my sister while my parents enjoy a night out on the town. It occurs to me, while “1999” plays repeatedly on Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve, how quickly those years passed. Now, in the final weeks of 2011, the song baffles me more still: Was 1999 really more than a decade ago?

William Forysthe’s I Don’t Believe in Outer Space, performed last week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, poignantly tackles that sense of displacement and confusion, showing us life’s fragility, humor, and horror along the way. (As if speaking directly to me, it also, at one point, quotes “1999.”) The work isn’t an easy ride, but it’s one that pays off. Although theater trumps choreography here, the Forsythe Company’s 14 incredible dancers bring astounding clarity to their distorted movements, which start at the body’s center and move outward to the limbs. At 27, I might be too young to ponder my own mortality as Forsythe does here, but his hyperreal collage demonstrates how ephemeral and arbitrary our world is and persuades us to take nothing for granted.

Outer Space is a series of vignettes, most of them outrageous reworkings of familiar characters and scenes. In one, a German scientist asks “What’s the matter with matter?” His sermonizing is difficult to follow, but he leaves us with the powerful but simple notion that everything is connected. There’s a ping-pong match that bends time and erupts into a violent break-dance. Yoko Ando sprints on stage to conduct an impromptu 80s-style aerobics class, manically jumping from side to side and at one point shouting, “Beyoncé stole my choreography!” The dancers shift in and out of their roles, making it difficult to identify them. One who’s consistently easy to spot is Dana Caspersen, who repeatedly slips into a schizophrenic monologue that’s funny and frightening, playing both sides in a conversation between a B-movie villain and a housewife he’s terrorizing. (“I hope this isn’t being inconvenient for you,” she growls, squatting and impishly turning out one leg. Then, transforming into the housewife, she stands rigidly in place, arms at her sides with palms parallel to the floor. “No, of course not,” she replies in a squeaky Minnesota accent.) Forsythe punctuates this extreme theatricality with quiet solos and duets, showing a more delicate side of humanity.

Pop culture references from times are peppered throughout, giving the work a vague sense of nostalgia. Lyrics from songs by Cat Stevens, Prince, and Nina Simone — but most frequently Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” — find their way into the performers’ conversations and the score. Adding to the sense of accumulation, the stage is covered with balls of rolled up blocking tape, gathered from the company’s past performances. They resemble meteorites, and the dancers appear to be improvising as they throw, kick, and collect them.

The work sometimes confuses and overwhelms, but its finale ties it together. In soothing tones, Caspersen lists what we lose with death: “No more parties. No more party planning and saying, ‘Let’s have margaritas,’ and then forgetting to buy the ice.” She turns to the dancer seated beside her and touches her hand, then her leg. “No more of this,” she says, “or this.” The simple gesture has two meanings. For Forsythe, death halts his work: Never again will he touch or shape a body. And to the rest us, the body is equally precious: It’s our tool, our vessel, our voice. (In other words, it’s more than just matter.) By this point we’ve become endeared to the Forsythe’s cerebral chaos, and we’ve seen plenty of ourselves in his surreal choreography. Caspersen begins to step backward. As the lights dim, she fades from view. Suddenly it’s over.