Articles from Ballet2000

Forsythe, freer and more ‘classical’ than ever

by Sonia Schoonejans - The veteran American choreographer, now 72, is one of the most notable of our times – as much for the success of his ballets as for the originality of his choreographic thought – and has, since his ‘buen retiro’ to Vermont, continued to monitor his ballets around the world, and, more rarely, to embark on new creations or reworkings.

Since he left Europe for the United States to settle down in Vermont, the place he states loves more than anywhere else, and since he is no longer in charge of any company, either big or small, William Forsythe has rediscovered his taste for freedom. He creates as and when he wants and for whomsoever he chooses.
He is now the ultimate ‘freelance choreographer’ invited by the Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris, English National Ballet, Dresden’s Semperoper Ballett, San Francisco Ballet, New York City Ballet and all the most important companies around the world. Last autumn, the Ballet de l’Opéra de Lyon presented ‘Carte blanche to William Forsythe’ and recently he travelled to London to work with the dancers of English National Ballet.
This shift corresponds to a change in his focus as a creator of dance and a return to his first love, that of ballet in its purest form, a form in which he is so well versed and which he continues to explore with enthusiasm. In truth, he never actually gave up on classical dance, and his creative vocabulary has always been set within its parameters. He has often observed that “The alphabet of ballet is eternal, you just have to use it”. But for a time, he too engaged in choreographic modernity, his approach being to deconstruct what had shaped him. He accomplished that in masterful and always intriguing ways by fragmenting the visual aspect, the internal rhythm and the narrative of classical dancing and by challenging every expectation of a dance performance.  Artifact (1983), Impressing the Czar (1988), and The Loss of Small Detail (1991) remain masterful examples of his exploration into the origins of ballet, the concepts that shape it and the manner of its presentation.  He had previously already embarked on a philosophical yet ironic reflection on the heritage of classical dance in the work France/Danse in which he submitted the references and symbols of Western civilisation to the precariousness of a conveyor belt.
By questioning danse d’école itself, the barrier between tradition and innovation was kicked aside with a well-aimed ballet slipper; it was no longer possible to pit ballet against contemporary dance and to throw out the former for the sake of the latter. He summarised his focus at the time: “What interests me is the archaeology of movement, not movement itself - the debris, the invisible layers, the growth around it. Destabilising and decentring, that’s what I’m working on.”
Today, his questioning takes other paths. Forsythe draws on tradition without conceptualising it or referring to the philosophies of Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault or Ludwig Wittgenstein. The only meaning he now invests in his dance creativity consists of choreographic phrasing alone. If his passion for analysing each movement and each ballet position remains the same, it is for the pure pleasure of composing and recomposing them in different ways, to produce a proliferation of steps from a minimum of base material, with no purpose other than that of creating dance. This approach is what he has outlined in several recent interviews: “I don’t think about what dance expresses. I think only of the movement, even if I part of my thoughts are given to the context in which I place that dance”.
This was all clearly demonstrated by the two Forsythe works comprising the recent programme at Sadler’s Wells’, Blake Works 1 and Playlist (EP), in which Forsythe uses traditional ballet steps and movements which he sets to contemporary pop music and which serves to marry sight and sound in such a way to create the immediate impression that the dancers are literally singing with their bodies.
Seeing his recent new works, one can only marvel at the freshness of his inspiration, his intimate knowledge of the mechanics of the classical dancing body, the new-minted combinations of the steps he creates and his generosity in his sharing his artistry with others.
The dancers certainly felt it, discovering possibilities in themselves that were unrealised before Forsythe showed them how to and their dancing was characterised by a party-like virtuosity. The off-centre approach, pushing the dancers madly away from the vertical, extreme extensions, lightning changes of direction and dizzyingly fast pirouettes, in short everything that is required by Forsythe’s style, translate into pure pleasure thanks also to the choreographer’s attention and generosity to his dancers. Forsythe’s sheer joy of classical dancing which he shares with his dancers is something he also wants to communicate to the audience in order to bring them closer to ballet itself. He recently observed that “I want people to look forward to ballet, not endure it.”  In short, if one had to identify a contemporary successor to George Balanchine, that person would, without a doubt, be William Forsythe.
Having lived in New York, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Dresden and been on endless travels around the world, Forsythe has found himself a haven and finally feels he can put down roots: “I have never stayed in a place so long and I am happy that I am no longer traveling all the time!”
From the house bought in the 1990s in Vermont - “one of the most beautiful places I know” - where he lives with his current wife, ex-dancer Dana Caspersen, he can follow his signature works which continue to be danced the world over which include the now famous In The Middle Somewhat Elevated, the work he created for the Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris when Rudolf Nureyev was its director which provided a big break to several young company hopefuls – Sylvie Guillem, Manuel Legris and Laurent Hilaire among others – and helped launch their star careers.

An Evening in London
Blake Works I – chor. and dec. William Forsythe, mus. James Blake;
Playlist (EP) – chor. and des. William Forsythe, mus. varied; English National Ballet.
Sadler’s Wells, London
There is dance and then there is the context in which it develops. How does the one affect the other? William Forsythe is interested in everything that provides the context for dancing and which can give it a different colour, whether it be through lighting that enhances the body, costumes, sets or music.
In the recent ‘Forsythe Evening’ performed by English National Ballet at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre, the American choreographer combines the purest classical dance vocabulary with a variety of contemporary pop music, all to brilliant effect. The evening was divided into two parts, first, the revival of a work created for the Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris in 2016 to music by singer-songwriter James Blake taken from his album The Color in Anything, and then a brand-new work entitled Playlist (EP) to disco music which included numbers from singers or groups ranging from Natalie Cole to Lion Babe.
Playlist (EP) is a new work which includes sections created in 2018 for ENB’s male dancers, to which Forsythe has added new numbers, mainly for their female colleagues. The music chosen by Forsythe seems purpose-made for his riot of pirouettes, changes of direction, spins, whirls and fluttering petite batterie for the women while the men, defying gravity, flash across the stage in bolts of lightning movement.
The ensemble dances are remarkable, often making brilliant off-beat use of the music and, in their lively dynamics, are sometimes reminiscent of Twyla Tharp or Jerome Robbins. Pair work becomes a celebration of the women’s delicacy and the men’s strength with extensions which seem to go on for ever. The work as a whole is both subtle and powerful and clearly demands a great deal of stamina from the artists.
There are marked differences between the original 2016 performances of Blake Works 1 in Paris and those by the dancers of English National Ballet in 2022: instead of the elegance of the Paris Opéra dancers, there is a focus in London on athletic strength and a joyous sense of throwing themselves ‘into the fray’. The women energise the whole undertaking with their sharp, spiky pointe work which charges up the whole ensemble - never has a ballet looked so much like a disco party. That was clearly Forsythe’s wish, who explained: “You have to remember that originally, ballet was linked to festivities and celebrations. I wanted to make a celebration of our age.”

Sonia Schoonejans - BALLET2000 n° 290 - June 2022