Dancing Forsythe's Dances: from outside in and inside out

Features, 12-13, Behind the Scenes

by Dr. Linda Caruso Haviland





Part I    Forsythe and his work: From the outside in

In 1963, half a century ago, the fledgling Pennsylvania Ballet cut its teeth on the work of the revolutionary choreographer George Balanchine, dancing the first of over thirty of his ballets that would come to form the spine of its repertory.  While audiences elsewhere may have been puzzled or vexed by this choreographer's innovations, Philadelphians, from the very beginning, were raised on Balanchine's extensions of the ballet vocabulary. We watched and learned as his choreography dynamically sculpted a powerful geometry in both the human form and the form of the dance itself, cutting through the last remnants of 19th century ballet and bringing it into modernity.  What better audience, then, to receive or company to perform the ballets of a contemporary visionary, William Forsythe.

William Forsythe, simply put, is one of the more important choreographers working in the 21st century. Europe knows him, the US is catching up, and Pennsylvania Ballet, having first performed his work in the 1980s, is in the forefront, again, of training dancers to perform, and audiences to see ballet, anew, in his trail-blazing work. Like Balanchine before him, Forsythe has literally turned ballet on its head without missing a beat or diminishing its power as an art form.  Forsythe acknowledges Balanchine's influence, including their shared confidence in the sheer beauty and power of dance on its own, in and of itself.  They share, as well, the use of measured space and counterpoint to provide both visual and aural clarity, a great affection and respect for dancers, and a willingness to stretch the ballet vocabulary and canon to the edge of possibility, not for the sake of vacuous virtuosity, but to explore the full capacity of the dancing body.  The two choreographers have each drawn differently on the same genetic material of stripped down, complex, brilliantly inventive movement and form, but the work of each also embodies a distinct but insatiable curiosity about what dancers can do and what ballet can be . . .or become . . .

Like Forsythe, Balanchine's work emerged from a set of influences particular to his life both here and abroad.  His innovations are too numerous to list but range from the very specific—the particular use of the tendu or stretched foot to initiate action, the distinct placement of hands right down to the fingertips, the pelvic thrusts and flexed feet . . .to the global—the play of counter balance in the pas de deux, the promenades and pirouettes inverted, distorted or compressed, the encouragement towards bigger and faster, all the while maintaining a distinct sense of 'cool' and, always, his supreme musicality.  His impact on both the look and dynamics of ballet is so widespread and his style is so ingrained in us as the exemplar of ballet that, while still spellbound by his work, we barely recognize the revolutionary aspect that once excited or confounded audiences.  But, then, along came Forsythe, building on Balanchine as a baseline and further extending his radically beautiful vocabulary.  Together with a generation of young dancers who matched him nerve for nerve, Forsythe surprised us, revealing ballet's potential to recreate itself once again.  Roughly fifty years after Balanchine created works like Apollo or Concerto Barocco, Forsythe created several revolutionary dances that, like the work of very few choreographers before him, are generally considered to have initiated a new era for the ballet genre. 

With the addition of Artifact Suite, Forsythe's three ballets from that period which are now in the repertory of Pennsylvania Ballet frame a particularly important arc in Forsythe's creative journey.  Starting with Artifact in 1984, travelling through In the middle, somewhat elevated and The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, and landing onArtifact Suite in 2004,[i] it was evident that Forsythe was doing ballet, but WHAT was he doing with it?  Or, as some thought, to it?    The pace, scale, and complex gestural dynamics clearly pushed ballet into new technical and aesthetic territories. Yet Forsythe ventured a description of his efforts as just another viable strand, another way to do and see ballet that moved alongside the "normative"[ii] or classical tradition of the art form without necessarily displacing it.  These works are attached to ballet tradition by a strong umbilical cord that twists together the history of the form and his own history within it.  Ballet, he has said, is his mother tongue; it cannot be erased from his body or from his consciousness.  But given his intellectual and motional inquisitiveness and the contemporary cultural and political spaces in which these have been cultivated, neither could ballet remain the same.

While Pennsylvania Ballet is one of few US companies to bodily archive three of his works from this seminal period, any company worth its salt uses Forsythe's In the middle, somewhat elevated as its training ground, its portal into 21st century ballet vocabulary and structure. Forsythe's ballet vocabulary has been described as fractured, incisive, willful, deconstructed, in your face, stuttering, extreme, and exquisite. But words can fix as well as describe and Forsythe refuses to sit still for any categorization. Instead, he watches the dancing before him, always recognizing, as he says, that "it could be otherwise" and continually asking, and inviting us to ask, "what if?"  Apply this question to ballet's preoccupation with balance—"what if?"—or to the carriage and shape of the arms—"it could always be otherwise." Question the lift against gravity and leap into space, and possibilities emerge that are limited only by the physical capacity of human bodies and the daring and intelligence of both choreographer and dancers.

Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Dancers Julie Diana and Ian Hussey in William Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated. Photo: Alexander Iziliaev.


This vocabulary builds towards an overall structure in his ballets that is often dense with motion and gesture and can be challenging to see and absorb. Forsythe complicates beauty. But he trusts our imaginations as well as our perceptual systems, believing that we will discover patterns within the composition. He calculates and stages points of organization for us within the performance, setting them in motion to emerge from the blurs of complexity on stage. To create these moments of clarity and focus for the audience, he often turns to the classical stalwarts of theme and variation and of counterpoint as compositional strategies to help us make our way through these intricacies. 

In his use of theme and variation, Forsythe references Marius Petipa's 19th century classical inventions as well as Balanchine's more contemporary and complicated fugal structures, but he extends these into his own postmodern displacements of theme across the entirety of both the body and the stage. He claims counterpoint as his means to generate and organize movement, using it as a motor in the body itself, riding the torque and fleshing out the vectors as the dancer spirals her way into the ballet épaulement—the counter position of torso against legs—the same contrapossto that Michelangelo used in sculpture to bring marble to life and convey the depth of human feeling, the same contrapossto so loved by the baroque dancers who seeded ballet with its shape and dynamic. But Forsythe also makes  other uses of counterpoint within the larger architecture of his works.  Like Balanchine and others, Forsythe makes visible the structural similarities between poses, gestures, and musical line, often transferring a shape or dynamic from one location to another, in what he calls "isometries." But he notices other congruencies that often go unseen and pushes these "alignments in time" to their extreme so that they play out across all and any levels of space, time and force. "Look everywhere," he urges. Meaning may be found in the consistency of the centuries-old form or in the surprises and interruptions he introduces. In the end, it is about actively watching the dancing, trusting that you and I will make our own sense of it.

Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Dancer Lauren Fadeley in William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. hoto: Alexander Iziliaev.


This is new ballet and it exists at this time and in this space, because Forsythe saw that it could happen and that dancers were willing to go along for the ride.  While these important ballets make their way into the bodies and psyches of dancers and audiences in the US, he continues to ask dancers in his new group, The Forsythe Company, to catapult along yet other trajectories.  Founded in 2004 and based in Dresden and Frankfurt, works choreographed on and with this company, such asDecreationHuman WritesOne Flat Thingreproduced, or Yes, We Can't, continue to challenge and engage dancers and audiences alike.  Are they dance? Are they ballet? And what does it mean for ballet if, in fact, we consider them as such?  

But Forsythe's curiosity, voracious mind, and huge appetite for how movement, things, and, perhaps, even life are organized and structured, have led him on paths that are alternative even to his own newer visions of danced work.  With collaborators across many fields and disciplines, he has investigated how elements of a dance might be captured in real or virtual objects that would extend our ability to see or 'read' that dance, long after it had vanished into history.  He has even questioned whether the term, "choreography," could be extended beyond dance to describe or define other actions or categories of events or objects and has created both virtual and material installations that illustrate these and subsequent queries into what form these choreographic objects might take and what might constrain or excite their creative potential.[iii]

But returning to ballet as we know it, or are relearning to know it through his work, it may be surprising that, for an artist whose ballets are so firmly constructed on the various permutations of formal elements within a larger, splendid universe of geometrical space. . .the dance, in the end, is never just about the structure and the steps. It is about the affect, the whole that is larger than the sum of its parts, and about the dancers as interesting and intelligent beings who bring the work alive with both agency and abandon.  It is about humans, like you and me, albeit extraordinarily adventurous and talented.  It is not about transcendence but about being the best that humans can be within the art form—and it is the voice of the dancers themselves that make this most clear.


Part II   The Dancers' Voices:  From the Inside out

Forsythe's movement language, perhaps earlier but surely from Frankfurt on, integrated his full-bodied classical technique not only with his own explorations of motional possibilities but also with the movement passions and predilections of his individual dancers, which are generated, as one philosopher has said,  "by that person's use of his own body through the accumulated grooming of a continuous life."[iv]   From dancer after dancer, you hear of Forsythe's rigor and expectations that are exceeded only by his generosity and his genuine desire to motivate each dancer to dance to his or her fullest capabilities. In recalling rehearsals with Forsythe, Brooke Moore,[v] a principal dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet, explained that Forsythe "can really just pull things out of you that you didn't know you could do" that he encouraged and supported the dancer's desire to discover and achieve her full range of movement potential.  "He has this ability to make us feel so incredible, and to not say no. . .and to keep pushing—pushing us to just explore every aspect of your body in his choreography."  Nothing is taken for granted; nothing is absolute.  After 20 or 30 years of training, a dancer can easily raise her leg behind her in a perfect arabesque, even if she were sleepwalking.  But, says Moore, Forsythe challenges them to "do an arabesque like it's never been done before. . .you are the first one who had ever done this."  "He is," she says, "giving you the liberty and luxury to explore who you are within his steps."  Noah Gelber,[vi] a dancer with Forsythe back in the Frankfurt days and a trusted stager of Forsythe's ballets from this period, echoes this approach in his own teaching which he models on Forsythe's.  It is, as Gelber says, his responsibility to work towards specificity in the earlier days of the restaging process. A consummate dance artist, himself, his choreographic notes are equal parts beautiful and meticulous.  "I have to set very clear parameters to start with—this is what the dance 'is'.  But at the end of the day, it's not about what it 'is,' it's about how they feel it and, as Bill is always saying, it's about how the dancers feel it for themselves. [The ballet] is not a museum piece, it's live theatre, and it's something that [the dancers] recreate and recreate each time, and each time is going to be only as they are in that moment.  [It's about] letting them trust that and getting them to a place where your word is only a catalyst." 

But even the willing must learn to trust and to dare.  Moore, who danced with San Francisco Ballet prior to dancing with Pennsylvania Ballet, has performed Forsythe's work with both companies.  Reflecting on the extremes of balance that Forsythe's work demands, she admits "it is scary because . . . I know where my weight is going to fall but it's just not how I've been trained. . .so it's not natural.  It's not where I want to be. . .but then once I'm there, especially when I'm with a partner, it feels great. It's liberating, you know—how far I can pull myself off.  I'm on pointe and I have only one hand on my partner and I’m leaning the whole way out…  and he has me.  We both have the ability to bring me to the next step or section.  It is scary, but it's fun, it's a challenge…it's a whole new way of working."

Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Dancer Brooke Moore and Company Member Andrew Daly in William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. Photo: Alexander Iziliaev.


And the dancer's" whole new way of working" feeds back into Forsythe's choreographic loop. He is an artist who describes himself as 'influenced by the here and now" and whose curiosity is sparked by whoever or whatever is in front of him at that very moment. Put this together with a postmodern refusal to see anything as absolute and you get a reluctance to ever consider any dance work, even a ballet, as a museum piece, fixed or finished into perpetuity.  Remember, "it could always be other." Gelber affirms Forsythe's own self-analysis: "He likes to go with what he sees... he might be very inspired by one particular dancer in the room and say, 'that looks good, let's all try that.'  That's why there are so many different versions. . .Bill was changing Artifact for 25 years. . . In rehearsals, what was fascinating for me, as a spectator, was to see all of the permutations, transmutations that the choreography would go through from day to day until he was happy for that year."

Ballets can and do change over time, intentionally or otherwise.  After conversations about the Balanchine repertoire with one of Balanchine's noted ballerinas, Merrill Ashley, Moore speculated that "everyone remembers things a bit differently" and that despite all efforts to coincide with the choreographer's intentions, there will always be "a slight variation there, or a hair of a difference over here."  In addition, as she points out, the choreographer or stager might introduce slight changes to make the piece work for individual dancers, trying to "make it look best, although with the intention of the choreographer in mind."  Add to this Forsythe's willingness, like Balanchine before him, to change elements of a ballet to keep it a living work of art, and the act of restaging a ballet becomes complex indeed.  And if you have three stagers (Jodie Gates, Laura Graham, and Noah Gelber) plus the choreographer, himself, as was the case with the setting of Artifact Suite on Pennsylvania Ballet, how can any agreement be reached?  Moore gives us a clue when she recalls the strong sense of community that the stagers encouraged in the dancers while setting the work.  Having learned Forsythe work while dancing with two different companies, she was, in both instances, impressed with this emphasis on community.   We were told, "You're dancing for each other.  Yes, the audience is out there and watching you and you are dancing for them, but you are dancing for each other…the connection, the community, the family feel…they always wanted us to incorporate that into [the dance].  Moore even sees this reflected in the choreography of Artifact Suite as well. "In the end of Artifact the group, the ensemble, comes in and we're all sort of gaining strength together. . . It's some sort of force, not an army, but a group, and we're all coming together to be as one."  

This sense of community, of reaching some sense of consensus, although far from perfect unity or concurrence, inflects the teaching as well as the making of the work and the restaging process.  "OK, "says Noah Gelber, who eschews the dictatorial, "OK, let us agree to do the arm this way as opposed to another way."  And this same sense of community is, perhaps, what enables consensus among the stagers.  The dancers that comprised Frankfurt, and from whom Forsythe selected a handful to reset the ballets from that period, had learned to work both independently and collaboratively under the guidance of Forsythe.  Because Forsythe had encouraged a process, as Gelber recalled , in which the dance "resided independently and individually in each one's body" there were, and are, likely to be as many minute variations as there are dancers, all bound to the 'steps' so to speak, but with multiple possibilities of slight divergences.  When staging the work, Gelber, teaches the choreography but reminds the dancers that they must remain open.  He tries to "disseminate as much information as possible, so that the dancers are ready for all options. . .and to build in room for the inevitable question mark."  Because the stagers are used to the give and take of collaboration and a shared body politic, when they gather the dancers together in the studio for the first time, "it just naturally happens that we would look at each other and say, OK, you're doing that version, fine.  And we pretty much anticipated the places where there was going to be a need for consensus. . . and it happens."

And what "happens" has changed the way that dancers dance and audiences see the ballet.  Other top ballet companies in the US perform Forsythe ballets, but Pennsylvania Ballet is one of the few that holds multiple danceworks demarcating this groundbreaking historical shift in ballet.  Having honed its skills and aesthetic on a Balanchine repertory that is one of the foundational precedents for Forsythe's work, it is both natural and important that this company serves as a corporeal archive, a living history of Forsythe's significant ballet choreographies.

Artifact Suite provides the dancers of Pennsylvania ballet with possibilities to stretch both their ideas about and their performances of ballet. They can, as Gelber noted, "access their intellectual processes" as well as "the sheer physicality" of the work."   With the other Forsythe ballets now in repertory, Artifact Suite provides us, as audience, with a full-bodied experience of a monumental period in ballet history.

But like the best Balanchine work, these works are not dated and, despite the inevitable urge that other choreographers have had to incorporate this new 'style' or approach into their own work, Forsythe, as does Balanchine, remains a unique talent.  Artifact Suite is a vital inclusion in the repertory. Although an "artifact", it is not a relic. Rather, in each performance we re-witness a turning point in ballet as the dancers experience history incarnated in their bodies. But we also see brilliant, in-the-moment dancing that continues to be a point of instigation, challenging dancers to perform superbly and audiences to see ballet with fresh eyes and an open mind. Forsythe's ballets remain dynamic exemplars of the form, speaking to us across time and connecting us to now.

Dr. Linda Caruso Haviland is a dancer, a scholar, and the Director of Dance and the Alice Carter Dickerman Director of the Arts Program at Bryn Mawr College.  

[i] 1984 Artifact, Frankfurt Ballet; 1987 In the middle, somewhat elevated, Paris Opera Ballet (later incorporated into Impressing the Czar for Frankfurt); 1996 The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, Frankfurt Ballet; 2004 Artifact Suite, Scottish Ballet.


[ii] All quotes by William Forsythe are taken from published or web interviews with William Forsythe.


[iii] “Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced,” is an interactive Web site created with Ohio State University’s Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design. http://synchronousobjects.osu.edu/ "Motion Bank" is a four year project of The Forsythe Company designed to provide a broad context for research into choreographic practice. http://motionbank.org/en/   

Examples of Forsythe's installations and choreographic objects can be found on the Forsythe Company's website.   http://www.williamforsythe.de/exhibitions.html(select the English version)


[iv] Joseph Margolis, The Autographic Nature of the Dance," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 39, No. 4 (Summer, 1981), p 421.


[v] Brooke Moore (principal dancer, Pennsylvania Ballet), taped phone interview, May 14, 2013.


[vi] Noah Gelber (former soloist with Royal Ballet of Flanders and the Frankfurt Ballet, Gelber has maintained the responsibility of Choreographic Assistant for 11 different ballets from William Forsythe's repertoire and has staged Forsythe's work on over 30 companies world wide) taped interview, June 1, 2013.