May 30, 2024

William Forsythe: A Modern-day Master.

When someone is so consummate at what they do, they tend not to be appreciated, but revered. This is how I, and I assume most of the intellectual dance world feels when thinking of William Forsythe (b.1949).

The Royal Ballet of Flanders performed Forsythe’s seminal 1984 work Artifact last week (April 19th-21st) at Sadler’s Wells – who maintain their untouchable track record of programming. Artifact was the first piece Forsythe choreographed for Frankfurt Ballet when he became the Artistic Director in the same year. When anticipating a new Directorship, many simply hope for as little commotion as possible, let alone the gift of a work that will end up defining an element of dance history.

The element in question – who would continue the work that George Balanchine (1904-1983) had begun between the classical heritage of ballet, and its undeniable need for modernist exploration. Balanchine had taken the foundations of technique and choreography forwards leaps & bounds with his quizzical mind and adeptly musical ear. And Forsythe, who’s been choreographing professionally since 1976, has proven himself more than capable of continuing this existing dialogue.

It is impossible to discuss Forsythe without contemplating that dreaded word – categorisation. Ballet purists may call his work ‘modern dance’, fearing that it strays too far from their notion of classicism. And though I adore ballet – I adore innovation more, hence why I apply the term ‘postmodern-classicism’ (Jencks, 1980) to Forsythe’s work, as this label allows both aspects (classical and modern) of his creativity to be recognised.

The piece doesn’t disappoint in performance – in fact, it supersedes its own reputation. This has much to do with the dancers executing the work well, which the Flanders troupe did, categorically. A standout for me was Courtney Richardson, who featured in Part 2 (of 4). I was familiar with the movement from this section as it had formed into its own piece, Steptext in 1985 for Alterballetto, which the Royal Ballet acquired a decade later. Most memorable in this work was Sylvie Guillem (having defined a relationship with Forsythe during the creation of In the middle, somewhat elevated [1987]). My point being – few people are able to follow Guillem in anything she’s done without looking like a diluted version. However Richardson more than held her own. Her powerful yet aesthetic physique worked proficiently through Forsythe’s movement, and her apparent bravery in the challenging phrases further secured her authority.

It is little wonder the company do the work so well under the artistic direction of Kathryn Bennetts. Having worked in Frankfurt as Ballet Mistress for a substantial period, Bennetts will have seen Forsythe work his wonder on new and existing works – a great pedigree with which to oversee Artifact’s upkeep.

Forsythe has described the work as both a history of ballet, and an homage to all of his memorable teachers. The movement style is a clear indication of where Forsythe trained and what he feels are the important aspects of the classical language to keep discussing. His experimentation with port de bras – as in the degree of expansion and level of dynamics used (specifically swing and impact), is a clear nod to the training delivered at the School of American Ballet. Founded by Balanchine in 1934, SAB has since become the feeder for the New York City Ballet and other top notch companies worldwide. Most vocational schools have a strict code of technique they favour, but perhaps none more so than SAB, as Balanchine had wanted to create dancers who would be au fait with his movement style even before they performed in one of his works. Forsythe, having studied at the school, clearly took this approach to classical movement as his mantra.

One sees much of Balanchine’s style within the work, but always in a positive manner. This acknowledgement doesn’t weaken Forsythe’s own material, but suggests that he took what he knew/liked as his starting point for development. His use of the Crossman-Hecht (expertly played by Margot Kazimirska) and Bach scores, as well as his own composition communicates physical visualisations of both the melodic and rhythmic lines – allowing the scores to become supremely tangible.

As Forsythe was responsible for the whole production, things continue to surprise throughout. During Part 2 a front-cloth is lowered from the flies intermittently reaching the stage with a resounding thud. This action takes the concept of ‘black-out’ to a different level, as well as questioning the formality of an audience’s experience. For me – ingenious, but for others, perhaps annoying…

Two characters use speech throughout the work which snowballs into philosophical gibberish. Amusing at times, the inclusion of speech/context seems to highlight the wanton aspect of the movement even more. This is/was groundbreaking stuff – as most contemporary era creations are so heavily concept-led that often ‘pure’ movement doesn’t feature on the creative menu at all.

Howard Gardner, the noted developmental psychologist, defined a theory called Extraordinary Minds in 1997. He proposed four criteria under which any extraordinary mind could be categorised. His description of one of them (a Maker) reads “may have mastered existing domains, but he or she devotes energies to the creation of a new domain” (Gardner, 1997: 12). This seems like a befitting description of what Forsythe has done/is doing with the classical ballet language. His level of comfort with the existing vocabulary is such that he seems confident in questioning all that came beforehand in the quest for progress. This is very much what Balanchine was doing as early as the 1930s (Apollo, 1928).  So it seems the relevance of ballet in the 21st century is primarily beholden to a Russian-American alliance – oh the sweet irony.



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