Did William Forsythe Invent The Modern Ballerina?

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THE AMERICAN CHOREOGRAPHER William Forsythe, whose 2003 work Decreation comes to the Brooklyn Academy of Music this week, is one of dance’s towering figures. An artist whose early career expanded our ideas of what ballet can be, he has continued to create work that keeps building upon larger theatrical ideas. Most of Forsythe’s career has taken place in Germany, where he headed the Frankfurt Ballet for twenty years, and where, since 2005, he has directed a new troupe called The Forsythe Company.

 

It has taken a while for Forsythe’s achievements, long lauded in Europe, to percolate to his native country. But it’s hard now to deny the choreographer’s enormous influence on a new generation of choreographers and dancers, who have absorbed his ideas about and techniques for generating movement; the freedom and plasticity of his vocabulary; and his masterly ability to make lighting as dramatic and integral to the work as the movement itself. As his work indicates, Forsythe is a polymath, a choreographer who takes what he terms “choreographic thinking” into the realms of films, architecture, art and performance installations. He is also a voracious reader and thinker, as likely to use a mathematical formula or a philosophical concept as he is to use a movement phrase as a strategy for creating a dance.

 

Forsythe’s speech can be as complex, intricate, and thought-provoking as his choreography. Both amply repay the close attention they demand.

 

 

 

ROSLYN SULCAS: What are your thoughts on the relationship of classicism to contemporary artwork? Or to put it another way, between what we know in art – the classical canon and its traditions—and innovation?

 

WILLIAM FORSYTHE: It’s a question of classification. The position of a category and ideas about a category can shift. Ideas about what is “the classical” change, so I think if you accept the idea that terms are mobile in these kinds of relationships, then you begin to understand that in certain cases you understand things in one way, and in other cases, in other ways.

 

For example, my piece One Flat Thing, Reproduced could be seen an example of a classical organization – its organizing principle is counterpoint (it works perfectly if you set it to Bach). But it doesn’t use, or excludes, some of the historical references (pointe shoes, a certain kind of music, a historically specific technique) that would indicate classicism.

 

 

RS: So you are suggesting that the principles migrate into a different form?

 

WF: Yes. One Flat Thing is not balletic, but in a sense it is classical. An idea from one domain can exist in another, and thrive just as well, but in a different form. Something as fundamental to ballet and classical music as counterpoint survives in my work in translated form, even if I chose not to use other associated elements.

 

It’s interesting when you distill these functions and find out how they can be applied to other circumstances beside a traditional execution or manifestation. And if you put information from one domain into a chain of transformations, perhaps it reveals something about the work itself.

 

 

RS: So even though your work doesn’t look much like traditional ballet, you are still, in a sense, engaged in a dialogue with its constituents?

 

WF: Well, part of the instigation for all of this was Balanchine. We inherited a significant dilemma in so far as Balanchine provided paradigmatic examples of musical interpretation through his sublime musicality and expertise.

 

At the start of my career, in Stuttgart, it was imperative that I used the orchestra, and I made ballets to Handel, to Bach, to Penderecki, Hans Werner Henze. I was fortunate to have that situation and I worked my craft according to those conditions. When I began to work in Frankfurt, it became clear to me the orchestra would never rehearse our work enough to provide the kind of excellent musicianship I wanted, so I distanced myself from that. And if one acknowledged that one didn’t have exactly the same skills as Balanchine, where would the function of musicality reside, and how would it express itself for other choreographers?

 

For me, the answer seemed to be that musicality resided finally, inherently, in the bodies of the dancers. So dancers can be – although they don’t have to be – musical but autonomous from the received practices of musicality. And actually, that particular approach actually echoes the cohesiveness that musical ensembles must have in order to realize a work of art. We perform the same kind of synchronized organization but without that written score. Dances are in their own way visual musical objects as much as symphonies are acoustic musical objects. The difference is that my instrument is the body.

 

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RS: How do you see the relationship between ballet and the kind of movement that you are creating now?

 

WF: I don’t have a fixed idea of what ballet is, and I haven’t had one for a long time. I just know it’s a very rich source of categorical intentions: the accurate; the musical; the sustained; to cite just a few. But not all ballets address these categories all the time. It’s not necessary that every dance piece that uses the ideas from ballet provides exposition for all those ideas.

 

I don’t, for example, necessarily associate it with music, as it usually is. I associate it with the dynamics of pure physicality.

 

It’s important to remember that dancing doesn’t look like something for a dancer; it feels like something, although they instinctively relate that feeling to their knowledge of what it looks like. Every time they look in the mirror, they are investing themselves with the sensation of that image.

 

I think what I have introduced is the idea of intelligent sensation. I say to the dancers all the time, what you know is what you feel with your body. You don’t need to think more, you need to feel, proprioperceptively, more. Dancers are not told that they can consider themselves as sensorially intelligent.

 

From my point of view, there is no more interdiction towards the limits of what ballet sensation can be. So as practitioners of ballet, they can think deeply into ballet with their bodies, and find out what the limits of that thinking are.

 

 

RS: In a recent interview that I did with [New York City Ballet principal dancer] Wendy Whelan, she commented that you had invented the modern ballerina. Do you think that’s true?

 

WF: I think Balanchine did that, but it’s true that in my work, both the man and the woman have equal say in the dynamics or contributions to a pas de deux or any action that they shared. In In the Middle, for example, they are testing the limits of their cooperation as much as anything. It’s not just about support; it’s about enabling something that couldn’t happen alone. Those off-balance moves of the pas de deux couldn’t be sustained without the entirety of their physique – it’s a complex physical construction. Ballet does not have to be the sum of its received aesthetics.

 

 

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