Forsythe's Recent Paris Saga
PARIS, 31 May 1999 - Although he was
born in New York, the American dancer and choreographer, William
Forsythe has spent most of his working life in Europe. After a brief
career with the Joffrey Ballet, he joined John Cranko in Stuttgart at
the age of twenty-three, becoming resident choreographer of the German
company three years later, in 1976.
Virtually unknown in
France, he was nevertheless one of the first contemporary choreographers
Rudolf Nureyev invited to stage a ballet at the Salle Favart with the
young dancers of the Paris Opéra. The result was "France/Dance"
in December 1983. Four years later he was subsequently re-invited with
his explosive "In the Middle", created for Isabelle Guérin,
Sylvie Guillem, Laurent Hilaire, and Manuel Legris.
Forsythe had been appointed director of the Ballet of Frankfurt, and was
creating works for Munich, Berlin, the Joffrey Ballet and the
Netherlands Dance Theatre as well as for his own troupe.
then, the German company has become a very personal instrument for his
daring experimentation with "classical" dance, sometimes not
really dance at all.
It is probably easier to state what
Forsythe is not. His work is not particularly poetical. There is no
story or message; it is neither intellectual, nor pretentious and you do
not have to read your programme four or five times in the dark to
discover what it's all about.
Indeed, his programmes give no
indication at all and merely contain the cast list, which isn't really
surprising as Forsythe's work is simply meant to be enjoyed. It is pure,
abstract movement, at a faster rate than I've ever seen before, and his
contemporary, incisive language has its roots, like that of Neumeier and
Kylian at Stuttgart before him, in classical vocabulary.
April, Forsythe was invited by Brigitte Lefèvre to stage a
complete evening of ballet at the Paris Opéra, and I spoke to two
of the dancers interpreting his work.
"In fact, there are
really two William Forsythes", Agnes Letestu told me in her
dressing-room after rehearsal. "There is the highly contemporary
Forsythe, experimental and theatrical with his own company, and the
Forsythe who works with classical dancers, taking advantage of their
qualities to go further to create something breath-takingly beautiful".
uses classical references for his steps and positions, but the style
isn't pure as everything is pushed to extremes. In fact, if you think of
the basic dance positions, established by Louis X1V, he can't really be
said to be a classical choreographer at all. In my first pas de deux, my
movements have nothing to do with classical ballet; there are no names
for the kind of positions we use. He sends your body off into space, and
I ached horribly all over for a month after working with him!"
was nonetheless very intrigued as to why Letestu and Martinez, two
essentially classical dancers should have asked to work with Forsythe.
wanted to dance in his ballets very much", said Letestu; "I've
always liked his work, and went to his productions at Chatelet every
year. He teaches us something different, more dynamic and more violent
in terms of speed than what we're used to".
tend to see me as a classical ballerina, so it's good for me to have
this challenge to show I have other possibilities, and it also gives me
that little bit of cheek I need when interpreting a romantic
role...lifting my leg a fraction higher than the classical code allows,
yet still remaining in the style of the work... That's how classical
Forsythe held workshops at the Paris Opéra
for three weeks before choosing his interpreters, more for their
motivation and personality than anything else. Letestu said that it was
almost like an audition, and that many dancers simply dropped out
because it was so exhausting. They had to improvise on an idea to
demonstrate their inventiveness, using a chair here, putting a foot
there. She added that in fact, after working on their pas de deux for a
month, with the steps being modified every day, she and Martinez finally
danced the improvised version they'd created with him at the beginning.
seconds of us, five minutes of him", she said. "He adds, he
revises, he cuts and when you've just about understood what he's after,
and can do the movements, well then, he changes them again. Each time I
arrived at rehearsal, my steps were utterly changed! It was certainly
exciting, but also draining. Now he's left, so he can't change anything
anymore", she commented. With relief or regret?
remembered the first night clearly. Just before going on stage, the
order of the steps of his solo was reversed, the steps themselves were
altered, and the music was changed. "Everything was different; it
was virtually another ballet! The music, which had already been changed
three times was shortened again by several seconds, possibly to make the
end more lively", he said. "I think Forsythe finally wanted me
to do all the same steps, but in another order, but fortunately he
allows us to improvise as long as it is in the style of his ballet. Make
all the mistakes you want, he said, it's unimportant as long as you move
in the proper way. Obviously", the étoile added cautiously, "he
didn't tell us to go wrong on purpose!"
improvisations", added Letestu, 'were limited by the presence of a
'timer', a sort of television screen in the wings to tell us when we had
to go on stage: at 12m 8sec, for example, because so much was happening
on stage at the same time, and we couldn't be guided by the repetitious
sequences of the music."
With all the material we had",
the dancers told me, "we could have produced three ballets and
danced the whole evening ourselves".
Letestu believes that
Forsythes constant changes are not the fruit of hazard, but are
premeditated to keep the dancer in a state of perpetual tension. "He
deliberately puts the dancer in danger to avoid routine and keep an
element of stress. He's a past master of the non-permanent, and can't
stand keeping the same choreography. Were he to return tomorrow, I'm
sure he'd start changing everything again. He's in perpetual evolution
because what interests him is to create".
It is this love
of creation, as well as the unique opportunity to work with the
outstanding French dancers which brings William Forsythe to the Paris
company. Dance in Germany plays second fiddle to music and lack of
adequate government subsidies limit Frankfurt's director to one creation
a year for his own troupe. Germany's loss being France's gain, both
artists and public here benefit from the work of this extraordinary
choreographer of the 21st century.
"Working with Forsythe
is not only enriching", the dancers said, "it can also be
enormous fun. We tried so hard to create something different that on
several occasions when we were working with Kader Belarbi, we found
ourselves tied and twisted up in the most impossible positions that we
just collapsed with laughter and had to stop rehearsals. Forsythe was
giggling as helplessly as we were and that's never happened with any
other choreographer before."
Letestu commented on how
wonderful it was to work with the American choreographer as he was such
a warm and caring person. "He's adorable", she said, "but
I often wonder how such a human person can produce such aggressive,
Brutal, she emphasised, in the sense that
his movements are not only extreme, but frequently off-balance, with hip
extensions into space, and pointe work extending the range of movement.
For Martinez, it was less the speed and force of Forsythe which had
marked him than a certain way of working with their arms that was the
"He taught us to hold our arms in a
special way in order to go further with movement. The level here is so
high that we tend to rest on our laurels and forget this kind of detail,
but with Forsythe, you must surpass yourself."
William Forsythe does not intend to let another twelve years pass and
undermine his influence. "The company is amazing", he said, "simply
amazing. The qualities of the dancers are unbelievable." So
unbelievable that plans are afoot for a "speedy" return. For
the enjoyment of both public and artists.
Garnier, March 31 - April 14
Spectacle de ballets:
the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, music Thom Willems, created for the
Paris Opéra Ballet in 1987
Woundwork 1, music Thom
Willems, world creation
The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude,
music Franz Schubert
Pas/parts, music Thom Willems, world
Maison de la Culture Bobigny, April 10 -16 Ballet
Workwithinwork, created for the Ballet of
Quartette, created for the Ballet of Frankfurt
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