He’s been called the Antichrist of ballet, which seems a bit heavy. He’s also been hailed as ballet’s premier deconstructionist postmodernist – though who knows quite what that means? I call him Mr Post-Classicism.
Born in 1949, native New Yorker William Forsythe danced with the Joffrey Ballet and was influenced by New York City Ballet’s neoclassical guru George Balanchine. He moved to Germany to join Stuttgart Ballet in 1973, where he became resident choreographer. His best-known piece from this time is Love Songs: lovely music (Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick) cut with brutal emotion and bruising action.
It was his directorship of Frankfurt Ballet, from 1984, that put Forsythe on the international map. He made a series of pieces that variously extended, inverted, warped or downright wrecked traditional ballet. And he often used deliberately disorientating multimedia stagings that were closer to experimental theatre than to classical ballet.
By 2002, the municipal authorities had had enough. They wanted to put the ballet back into Frankfurt Ballet, and asked Forsythe to leave – which led to widespread outrage and protracted wrangling. Forsythe, not willing to serve up ballet as a “fine dining experience”, left anyway. In 2005 he set up his own smaller company, supported by the cities of Dresden and, er, Frankfurt.
Treat Forsythe’s own programme notes with caution, unless you’re fully qualified in post-structuralist textual rhetoric. (No? Me neither.)
Forsythe is American. His dance style is from Russia, via New York. He lives and works in Germany (where Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater is another influence). His movement theories are derived from a Hungarian, Rudolf Laban. His conceptual theories come from French poststructuralism. You want stylistic and dramatic unity? Look elsewhere.
Forsythe’s basic idea is that ballet is like a language. It has vocabulary and rules of correct usage. But correct usage is not his focus – he’s much more interested in bending and breaking the rules. So watch out for how the geometries of classical ballet are twisted, tilted or pulled out of line.
Forsythe also typically messes with the social conventions of ballet – not lighting the dancers “properly”, raising and lowering the curtain in the middle of a piece, making dancers talk.
Forsythe’s most regular collaborators are dancer Dana Caspersen (his wife), and Dutch composer (or “sound artist”) Thom Willems. Standout dancers in his company have included Amanda Miller, Jone San Martin, Anthony Rizzi and Stephen Galloway.
Forsythe once delivered a ballet by fax (Hypothetical Stream, for Daniel Larrieu’s company in France). It was credited as “a choreographic work from William Forsythe”.
In his own words
“I think by dancing I was able to understand a lot of things. I was able to intuit things about mathematics and philosophy … ” – BBC Radio 3 2003, interview with John Tusa
“If dance only does what we assume it can do, it will expire. I keep trying to test the limits of what the word choreography means.” – New York Times 2007, interview with Diane Solway
“Ballet is a group of helixes, a series of iterations moving in spiral opposition.” – Dance Magazine 2001, interview with Donna Perlmutter
In other words
“Watching an evening of Forsythe’s sleek, urban works is like taking a stimulant. Life endlessly circles a very fast and twisty track.” – Deborah Jowitt, Village Voice 2003
“Brilliant, inscrutable and wildly entertaining by turns, he is at once a ballet purist and the high priest of post-structural contemporary dance.” – Luke Jennings, Observer 2007
“Forsythe should get his nose out of Derrida and start tending his tendus … pretentious as hell.” – Laura Jacobs, New Criterion, 1999
“Forget the theories and watch the movement … That is often the best advice for looking at William Forsythe’s brainy, off-center choreography” – Anna Kisselgoff, New York Times, 2001
“Do you Derrida or De Man? Shall we Foucault?”*
*Note: this pick-up line will only work with hardcore Forsythe groupies.
“I don’t understand.” If you understood you’d be getting the easy-life, what-you-see-is-what-you-get consumerist comfort-zone experience, and surely you don’t want that?
Now watch this
Where to see him next
Check the William Forsythe Company website for performance dates. Forsythe’s work is also in rep at several international companies.