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William Forsythe's Recent Paris Saga

William Forsythe during rehearsals

By Patricia Boccadoro

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.

Meanwhile, 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.

Since 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.

In 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".

"He 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!"

I was nonetheless very intrigued as to why Letestu and Martinez, two essentially classical dancers should have asked to work with Forsythe.

"I 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".

"People 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 dance evolves".

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.

"Thirty 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?

Martinez 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!"

"And 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 ballets".

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 Forsythe legacy.

"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."

However, 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.

Elonora Abbagnato and Jérémie Belingard

Palais Garnier, March 31 - April 14

Spectacle de ballets:
In 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 creation

Maison de la Culture Bobigny, April 10 -16 Ballet of Frankfurt

Workwithinwork, created for the Ballet of Frankfurt
Quartette, created for the Ballet of Frankfurt

Photos : Icare/Moatti

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