mon 08/08/2022

Q&A Special: Choreographer William Forsythe Over Time | reviews, news & interviews

Q&A Special: Choreographer William Forsythe Over Time

Q&A Special: Choreographer William Forsythe Over Time

The radical American choreographer speaks ballet

The radical modern choreographer William Forsythe (b 1950) was celebrated in a week of events in London’s stages this year, marking his transition from mouldbreaking neo-classical ballet to a more collaborative, theatre mode.

These transcripts come from 1997, before Artangel’s staging at London’s Roundhouse of what became instantly known as the white bouncy castle, Tight Roaring Circle, 2001 before the showing of two full-length ballet productions, Artifact and Eidos:Telos by his Ballett Frankfurt, then his company, and 2003, on the closing down by conservative civic authorities of Ballett Frankfurt for being too modern.


On March 24, 1997 William Forsythe, 47, and his wife and leading performer, Dana Caspersen, 33, talked to me inside the Roundhouse while the castle and sound effects were being set up.

ISMENE BROWN: Could you explain why a ballet choreographer has produced a white bouncy castle for the audience to bounce around in?

WILLIAM FORSYTHE: This was the result of throwing away several other ideas; we had been keen on another thing altogether. The idea of performers in it was marginal, because it was always about audience participation.

DANA CASPERSEN: We had been trying to build a long low room, but couldn’t figure out how not to have it look like a circus tent. So the concept of an inflatable popped up.

WF: I’d thought of a video projector in the cupola, to make a camera obscura, and then project a field of narcissus. But it proved unwieldy. Actually last year the very, very first idea was a huge facade of 50 windows, 50 identical dancers, simulcast. But it proved impossible to organise. Michael Morris came to us, said he wanted to work with us. There’s no brief here for anyone. Just do what your mind does in the space. So what we have now is because of not being able.

IB: What do you hope to come out of this?

WF: The J word. Joy.

DC: This, as it turns out, seems to be a very joyful experience.

IB: Childish?

WF: It's not reserved for children. It’s not in itself childish, there’s nothing childish about physics or ballistics. The trajectory of where you go, the parabolic experience, you travel on a parabola, at the very top of it, there’s a tiny instant of weightlessness, and you begin to accumulate this. Dancers experience this all the time. So what we experience bouncing is a fragment of dancer reality. You feel it at the top of the bounce.

IB: Is this a toy rather than a piece of art?

WF: I don’t know

DC: We see this as a setting for humans...

WF: ...doing their thing. People walk on that inflatable and know immediately how to react.

IB: The words stencilled inside the castle walls are from the novel Runaway Horses by Mishima. How do they input?

DC: If it needs to be explained, then it doesn’t work.

WF: Obviously we are talking about interiors and exteriors. This is his comment on the ridiculous and the sublime. You could ignore it, or read it and have no reaction. We had people who stop bouncing and read it. Or people who bounce and don’t read. If you spend enough time, you do begin to look at and study. We wanted the public to be disorientated inside, so you would not know where you were inside it. We wanted the turntable to disorient them, you’d walk backwards. The pillars carry thin strips of text, which is a very beautiful poetic text in very strong sensual language. "We kiss and fuck in this tight roaring circle, blind to all but the necessity of this". This is Dana's. So whiteness and inflation continued that idea of disorientation with no direction. The difficulty was trying e a low roof. We tried suspension, or tent - an inflatable lozenge was one thought, but we thought it would look like Barbarella. Michael Morris suddenly said jokingly, ‘white bouncy castle’, and we said, ‘absolutely’. He didn’t even blink. Yes, he said. That was the umpteenth version.

IB: Do you still speak ballet?

WF: (grins). Sure. That old quote. It's still true.


The aesthetics of ballet are there for very complex reasons, not just to entertain or please

In October 2001 I visited Ballett Frankfurt’s base in the Oper Frankfurt, on the north bank of the Main river, to find out from Forsythe about the two full-length ballet productions he was about to show in London, Artifact and Eidos: Telos.

WF: Artifact is a narrative evening-length piece which is patterned on the baroque ballet of let’s say the 1600s, like that done for Catherine de Medici at her wedding - which was a form of politique, put there to appease warring factions of Catholics and Protestants in France. They were designed as demonstrations of harmony, but at the same time there was a certain irony since this was the noble class reacting to the absolute monarchy being solidified in its position. Artifact is a hypothetical reconstruction of something in this period, but with the ideology in place - not the steps, but the ideology. I’ve worked on it for a long long time, and read new pieces of scholarship about the dance history of this time, and amended the ballet to take account of it. It’s been a very interesting project (he smiles) - classical dancing organised around a hypothetical reconstruction based upon an ideological reading of the historical background.

IB: So is there a message coming out of it?

WF: That history is more complex than you think. Especially the history of aesthetics. The aesthetics of ballet are there for very complex reasons, not just to entertain or please, it was more designed as political events. And I was so shocked to find that out! I had intuited one thing by practising it, because the practice of ballet does inform you about its history in one sense - but it’s hard to formulate so I went back and tried to read about the cradle of ballet-dancing, and slowly found out the basis of these formations. And it was political, not necessarily to entertain. These burlesques, for example, could be a kind of protest. And the ideologies of the 18th century were solidified with the neo-Platonism that governed political thinking and aesthetic thinking hardened into a kind of system - very French.

So I just tried to create in the tradition of what ballet has become, to create a piece about what it was. It’s almost like a mirror. It’s changed, and as from that point how can I mirror it, in the light of what we know now?

IB: You mean that the King employed the dancers to demonstrate his power, but that once on stage they then took on the power to say something different?

WF: Exactly. And it was done in such a fashion that the King himself was in the performance and therefore became the subject of it. So it was a kind of meta-reflexive event.

IB: And the king appears in Artifact?

WF: Yes, and it’s very interesting to see where, to whom, the revolution is assigned - the revolution of form. Because they had to do it within the codes of politique of that time. You had to subvert it by its own means, which was politeness. It’s an interesting project, I still don’t tire of it. i’ve been reading a book by Mark Franko, a brilliant book: The Body as Text, Ideologies of the Body. An amazing book, it pulls everything together. It’s hard to find.

IB:Am I right in thinking that your ballet in the middle somewhat elevated (made for Paris Opera Ballet) was also intended as a court entertainment?

WF: Yes, but placing Rudolf Nureyev in the position of the King. I originally called it Impressing the Tsar. I did it as a joke to see how Rudolf would react, and of course he loved it and was furious when I took the title away! The irony is also, that Rudolf being Rudolf, he thought the new title was sexual, but I said, ‘No, Rudolf, it’s about the two cherries hanging over the dancers.’ (He stares up into the ceiling, as the dancers do at the start of it.) The dancers start, staring up at the two cherries.

IB: OK, so what makes a republican, an American, living in the republic of Germany, get so interested into this monarchical aspect of ballet, when you are supposed to be the 21st-century modernist?

WF: Of course it’s not ideological - it’s a complex political subject, I don’t see it as an exclusively aesthetic subject. The aesthetics of ballet I see as the result of politics, which is very interesting indeed. The why, not just the what.
I’m having an interview in England with an expert on the evolution of épaulement, because I have big questions about when that was institutionalised. Exactly when that happened. Because you can place it in a social context, but unless you know what’s going on in the rest of the world you can’t understand the event.

IB: It’s so subversive, isn’t it? Epaulement subverts ballet rules.

WF: Oh, it’s the best. i wonder what ballet was before it had épaulement. Because we have 1620 the Royal Academy, boom, in place. But when did this complex counter-taught mechanics come along?

IB: Maybe when the first 16-year-old rosy-cheeked girl in the dancing company caught the eye of the king and blushed and looked away.

WF: But when was it built into the training?

IB: Perhaps the king said to to balletmaster, ‘I like what that girl did, make sure they all do it.’

WF: I’m going to find out! I want to see if anyone has done scholarship on it, so we can pin it down.

IB: The title of Artifact implies something solid, crisp, edged, complete, the opposite of your evolving project.

WF: Yes, but that’s the nature of dancing. The question of whether there is such a thing as a dance artifact. It’s an oxymoronic situation. Could there be such a thing as a ballet artifact? You’re probably the first person who’s queried the title. I would go further, and say it’s actually a trap, a bit of a lure.

IB: This version we’re seeing now has changed a lot since we saw it in London three years ago.

WF: Yes, that was Dutch National. I’ve still been changing it last week. Now you’re really going to see it. God bless them, but they are very much a ballet company. And whereas it can be done with a “Ballet Company”, it’s got really to be done by people who are have a discursive relationship with what they are dancing, rather than just “Performing” it. I say to the dancers, you must make a discourse when you dance. you have to make a re-affirmation of ballet and yet at the same time bring into question how ballet is danced.

IB: Which brings up the question of how ballet companies can actually perform your dances.

WF: Very difficult. The training is very different - mentally. Ideologically it’s different, that’s the problem. Or mentally, if you wish. The psychological restrictions, or constraints of institutionalisation of ballet.

What’s the difference is between obedience and rigour? That’s the deciding issue

IB: Essentially obedience from an early age.

WF: Yes, it is. it’s a corps, it’s like an army corps.

IB: But you needed that...

WF: You thought.

IB: I mean, to do your work... how dare I say it? but...

WF: Oh, go ahead, dare!

IB: I mean, I don’t think you could have done what you have done with classical ballet unless you had started from the basis of a bloody good classical training, and bloody well trained classical dancing.

WF: What’s the difference is between obedience and rigour? That’s the deciding issue. Rigour is what I’m going for - how and why these things are employed. Because what are you saying? You have to know the difference between two small variants of one thing, and if you don’t know that difference, every detail, then you cannot be discursive, you cannot talk about what you do. You are not expert in what you are doing, if you just do what you are told.

And there are so many different schools of it. I see the girls all moving their heads in Artifact, and you can see the slight differences in their heads that show their slightly different schoolings. it’s quite difficul to decide exactly which coordinates to go for. Because tendus are tendus, but where the real schooling and the real discourse comes out is in the arms and head.

IB: Whose do you like most? Who is most free?

WF: To a point, the Americans move extraordinarily freely. The French and ... in some cases the Russians - basically the Kirov, who are more French than, certainly, the Bolshoi who hold their arm positions up here (he stretches it up high and away). Although Nina Ananiashvili is also always out there, which is more to do with her body, I think.

But I think the French are extraordinary. After Rudolf worked with them, they have become consummate global ambassadors for the art form. They can adapt themselves to any style. Look at (Paris Opera Ballet's ballerina) Elisabeth Platel - she can be hyper-romantic, like some hole into the past, quite thrilling. It’s not a case of her being Conservative, but of her Conserving an attitude of the body that relates to that body politic of its time - it’s fascinating, not old-fashioned. A line, a way to see into history.

You do have to love it, and to really love it you have practise it every stinking day, in order to decide why you love it

IB: I’m so glad you say that, because a lot of people say classical ballet is old, out of date, lost its time. And actually to have a historical perspective on anything brings it alive. It would be like saying we are not interested in the Pharaohs’ tombs because we don’t care for their social structure.

WF: (he laughs heartily). That’s good. But I’d say that something like Artifact does revive interest. You find the most diverse people going, ‘Oh, ballet's very interesting.' But you do have to love it, and to really love it you have to practise it every stinking day, in order to decide why you love it, and also learn what you find not good about it. Like the militaristic underpinnings of it.

IB: Or the anti-feminist side of it too. Such a tedious argument.

WF: Yes, you can only say, ‘That was the way things were handled then.’ If someone doesn’t want to work that way now, that’s perfectly up to them.

IB: It’s out of historical structures that you get works of art.

WF: And they are art-historical - they come from their time only. And they also show why things should be different now.

IB: So how did you change in the 10-12 years between starting Artifact and Eidos. What is Eidos about, what does it mean?

WF: Oh, god. I’m one artist so it’s all one big project. You can’t start yourself anew every time, though one has to try.
So Eidos is an examination - as most of my pieces have been - of the balletic body. Again. The balletic body is composed of certain techniques, and one of these techniques is using proprioception to envisage geometry. Because ballet is basically a geometric inscriptive art form - that’s what we do.

So one of the things we do is blindly observe ourselves - you can close your eyes and envisage exactly where your hands are in relation to the centre, etc. And I call this a technology of recognition of your body without your visual system.

In Eidos I am saying that the proprioceptively visualised body is a concatenation, a huge cloud of forms that hang about it - it’s our ‘kinexperience’ as Rudolf Laban would say. And strangely enough I found this explained by Roberto Calasso in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony and he calls it the Eidolon. And reading this book I found that many things we take for granted in our functional selves as dancers, in other words how we make ballet appear, were already expressed in Greek mythology, and influenced by Greek philosophy. So ballet being a neo-Platonist form of art, it seemed logical that one would resort to an examination of Greek culture to, again, uncover how it works.

IB: So since it’s so different from Artifact, politically, it must look very different from it. it’s almost opposed to it.

WF: Yes, this is politically completely democratic - relatively democratic. I said, let’s invent a kinespheric vocabulary, we call it the Alphabet. Which means that the hands move and create form and gesture at every level from high to the ground.

IB: Is this the same as 'rotating inscription'?

WF: No, that is rewriting those things with a body part changing, but this does deploy rotating inscription in certain cases.
Then with this there was also the crushing together of a few basic ballet combinations, inverted, controverted, retroverted. And.... (he jumps up to find some charts of ‘algorithms’ to show me) The idea was to take these basic combinations and then transform them according to the dancers’ observations of their own, um, their own events. The algorithm is attempting to find a formula for Counterpoint. Now Counterpoint was what was overthrown during this period of opera. There was an earlier period, in which Counterpoint was the prime musical modality, polyphony. This was overthrown, so to speak, for Monody to come in. And out of them came the later compromise. I am still very much the believer that what we like about temporal structures like dance are the contrapuntal aspects of it. Look at Jonathan Burrows’ Stop Quartet. It’s like watching a piece of Bach. it’s so incredibly classical, it is pure counterpoint.

When I look at Merce Cunningham I think, ‘Counterpoint’. When I look at Burrows, I think, ‘Counterpoint’. And Trisha Brown, ‘Counterpoint’. it’s everywhere. So I started thinking, ‘What is counterpoint?’ And I came to the solution for that piece, if not for eternity - that it is kinds of alignment in time. I was talking to the dancers today about time, that the forms are subservient to timing.

IB: For Joe Public, who doesn’t know your theory, how do they get it?

WF: It’s an Affect. First of all, everyone’s expected something like, here’s a line of girls and they’ll all do this (he implies a unison corps effect). And it’ll be there. it happens in Artifact. And I’m extremely happy that it does - thank God, yeah! But then I discuss it in the dance. Artifact goes from a kind of... definitely subversive handling of this idea to using the same methods to create a view of neo-fascism. These methods are all in there. i find it quite creepy. But Eidos is basically saying, ‘What are the procedures we use to create these forms?’ Which is basically memory, it’s time-based.

IB: So Eidos is more abstractly intended. it’s quite a long piece...

WF: Three acts.

IB I know some people in Britain had difficulties with Balanchine’s Jewels because there was no story....

WF: (laughs.) Well, I think narrative has a different place in your culture, a very strong place in your British culture.

IB: Do you use the same tools in both? Pointework?

WF: No, no pointework in Eidos. it is extremely balletic in some cases in order to provide a metaphor for Apollonian structure. There’s an automatic-writing aspect to it. You get very complex movement, sort of like cadenzas, so you are looking at the 18th century. This oracular thing suggested by Calasso is that the Apollonian oracles were metred, and sometimes rhymed... and the Dionysian oracles were psychotic, like babble.

It’s a tremendous demand for the dancers... on the other hand it should produce a kind of ecstatic coloratura when it works well

IB: Like improvisation...

WF: Well, the question is can one dilate between the two, find the balance between clearly delineated, metred structures and those which are coming purely out of the proprioceptive body with no pre-thought of organising what comes out, except that you are producing a discrete body of 137 different things. So it’s a tremendous demand for the dancers, a pretty evil imperative... on the other hand it should produce a kind of ecstatic coloratura, let’s say, when it works well.

IB: How does the look and sound of them reflect the very different natures of these two pieces?

WF: Artifact uses a score that is extremely wellknown, Bach’s D minor Chaconne for solo violin, and we use the Busoni transcription, which mixed up the epic in it, and also the piano is a percussion instrument, and percussion seems to me very Renaissance.
Eidos uses a transformation of music in a much more contemporary sense - it’s again strings and winds, transforming by digital signal processing of the most recent kind. It was originally for the Châtelet, who were having a Stravinsky centennial celebration, so the first act is actually a rewrite of Apollo. Thom Willems has performed a transformation... Actually in places you may recognise it! And right at the end there’s a quote of the first solo with the lyre, where the violin himself is trying to move his violin in synch with the movements of the dancer’s wrists and hands. It’s funny because only a few people will recognise it! Peter Martins is going, ‘Waah!’ (laughing). The violin is on stage the whole time. Originally it was one violin and six women, like a doubling of the original cast of one man, three women, but then it moved out of the gender roles. Roles in Eidos are by and large ungendered. unlike Artifact.

IB: You’re often described as having this 21st-century vision of ballet.

WF: It’s almost 20 years ago!.... i thought what I was doing was very much of the moment then!

IB: But are you very consciously exploring new territory all the time?

WF: Yes, absolutely.

IB: Not just your inner landscape but to expose and develop the form...
WF: Yes.

IB: Because I mean not all choreographers do. Some of them want to deepen expressive means with known vocabulary.

WF: (he blows a rapsberry). That’s up to them. We all do what we like, but I do it because this is a dancing body that I’m dealing with, and we know that when the dancing body is doing extraordinary things, whichever type it is - whether classical ballet or Javanese or something that doesn’t even have a name - all these states have something to do with each other. How consciousness is subsumed into the event is something we all recognise. Think of that girl in the second movement of Symphony in C at the Kirov.

IB: Uliyana Lopatkina.

WF: Do I need to say more? That’s somebody completely absorbed into the act of making that body dance according to a vision. So it had to do with her vision too. That’s what Eidos is about - it’s about, ‘Use your eyes - you have to have a visiion of what you are doing’.

IB: Do you see any other choreographers as so mould-breaking that they are perpetually interested to watch?

WF: I feel that about Trisha Brown. For me she is one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. Jonathan Burrows is another. I think Jonathan Burrows deserves a place in the British pantheon, even if the British have completely ignored him, disdained him. i think that of Pina Bausch. She is one of the most phenomenal artists of our era in any art, a great mind, who has transformed an entire metier. Nobody now thinks of dance in the same way as they did before her. She led the dancing community into a new state of consciousness.

IB: What about people in the past?

WF: Balanchine did, of course.

IB: You still feel that now?

WF: Actually I’m embarrassed to think how long it is since I saw any. When I was first dancing I was awestruck every single evening, it was the late 60s, early 70s. I couldn’t figure out why it was so simple and so affecting. But that can only be done once. You can imitate it - I strove to master the craftsmanship, but realised that you can do it out of affection or maybe an Oedipal thing, but then you realise that basically you are doing it because you love them and you have to thank them. Something like The Vertiginous Thrill of Inexactitude is me saying, I love you and I wish I could do this, but you did it and we can’t do that any more, I’m sorry you’re dead, because you could still do it. It’s basically me saying, I love you.

And Artifact is about, ‘Can I make you speak now? Can I make you speak when you just died?’ (The work was made ‘just after Balanchine’s death). In France Dance, at Paris Opera with Sylvie (Guillem), I was thinking, My God, if only he could have lived to see her dance. I made France Dance on her when she was 16. She is still one of my favourite people in the whole world.

IB: What about the 19th century? Your Artifact reflects the structure of the older court ballets right up to the Imperial Court, but do you find anything interesting in Petipa?

WF: Ah, Petipa is a great choreographer.

IB: When you study him as a choreographer, did you see him as a mouldbreaker?

WF: No, because I saw Balanchine as the mouldbreaker of Petipa. So I was so surprised when I subsequently saw Petipa. When I was first starting out, my teacher had been a Balanchine dancer so Balanchine was God. I didn’t know jackshit about it. My teacher said, there was only one choreographer, and that was Balanchine. And I thought that therefore for all ballet there was only one choreographer! I didn’t know what a choreographer was, even though I’d been choreographing since I was 14. And so I was shocked when I saw a ballet that was actually by someone else! Petipa! Aha!

IB: It accounts for an awful lot about some of the American reaction to the Kirov dancing Balanchine.

WF: Is it cool? Is it good?

IB: Some of them are outraged. But Barbara Horgan was delighted, she said the Russians had such soul.

WF: Sure they do. To say that Balanchine was soulless, a sort of mechanist, is absolutely false. I saw all those performances from 1969 to 1973, with Kay Mazzo and Violette Verdy and Susie, you name it they were all there - that was a fucking show! That was the highest drama. The girls gave you everything you ever got out of proper classical ballet. Basically George Balanchine was doing a non-stop second act - he realised that the first and third acts of most Russian ballets were crap and threw them out, just did the second. ‘Here you are.’

IB: Do you ever worry about baffling people?

WF: No. I always think people are incredibly intelligent and want something to think about. All of us do. Something to make us wonder. But we also want to be thrilled, and to not know. Everybody wants to not know. You are asking questions, right? Half the fun is discovering why.

IB: Technique... when you’re reviving your stuff, you’ve said that it’s constantly new and you constantly rework it. I was looking at your CD Improvisation Technologies - I even did some, I did that doorknob exercise. (he laughs heartily) It seems to me, as an ignorant outsider, a brilliant device to take a classical dancer and take away the habits.

WF: Yes. That’s what it is.

IB: But you do need the classical dancer first?

WF: No. Apparently, in New York, all sorts of people are using it. In Australia people tell me they’re using it. It’s not rules, it’s just an approach. It’s neither ideology, nor rules, nor school. It’s simply a way to visualise space. What ballet dancers see all the time is perhaps something you should not ignore, no matter what you do. Ballet-dancing only intensifies this.

IB: It seems to me so interesting the way that it works on the certainties of classical ballet - because as you say they are both geometric, parallel systems. And it seems interesting to see how your system changes and does beautiful things to classical moves. And if you were starting from a position of zero, someone with a bit of everything, then you are simply adding a bit of something else in a sense.

WF: I know what you mean.

IB: To me it’s almost a movement of space - you are changing the line, giving the line options, rather than making lines.

WF: You are absolutely right, this comes out of ballet. These are ballet dancers that I have here. I think we do Artifact better than a ballet company. Yet we call this Ballett Frankfurt, so what is ‘ballet’? Ballet is an examination of ballet. It’s not just ballet being repeated in, say, an acceptable way.... I’m trying not to offend anybody.

If I could propose Ballet and the Downfall of Habit in the same breath, that’s what I’d like to do

IB: Oh, go on!

WF: Oh, you won’t catch me out there! I do think, as Virgina Woolf says in Mrs Dalloway, about what she calls the Downfall of Habit. So if I could propose Ballet and the Downfall of Habit in the same breath, that’s what I’d like to do.

IB: Which is, I would have thought, almost entirely impossible to reconcile.

WF: You reconcile it by deepening the education, saying not only what are we doing, but the hows of what we do have to be enriched. So all that [system] does is enrich the how.

IB: Okay, let’s take the dream scene of Don Quixote, or Sleeping Beauty - you are talking about something that is partly about strict organisation in a very obedient pattern structure, but you are also talking about individuals within it who are using those strict and in a sense geometric concepts to express very very human and individual things to do with personality and music.

WF: But this is traditional from the late 16th, early 17th century. This is something that hasn’t really changed since then. As we were talking about the nobleman using this situation subversively to express himself, and this subversion has been appropriated and tamed. It couldn’t survive - the other systems of power took it over. It had a brief moment and worked in its own way and influenced its enivronment, but finally those things became appropriated and institutionalised. So what you are looking at is the institutionalisation of revolution, to a certain degree. Or at least of dissent.

So the soloists should basically be the dissenters, break the rules. Soloists should be the people breaking every single rule. That’s like Gelsey Kirkland, who broke every rule around. Love her or hate her, she was a fucking genius. That is, for me, the paradigmatic artist. someone who had the ability to do technically better than anybody else alive, but knew she could move beyond it, and did - because she could.

IB: Going back in your career to your UK connections - John Cranko hired you, didn’t he?

WF: I was one of the last two dancers he hired, and he died on the plane going back after that tour.

IB: So did you have any chance to be influenced by him?

WF: No. But the place was a great place to work. Marcia Haydee was influencing, Richard Cragun was influencing. The two of them were an extraodinary pair of artists. Their performances were sublime. In New York Arlene Croce wrote evil things about her being pigeon-chested, no chins... And I’m going, ‘As if that ever had anything to do withe nature of the art, the beauty’. She unfortunately saw a few performances of Marcia and didn’t like them - that’s ok. But I saw hundreds of performances and I was deeply affected by them. I was fortunate to see Gelsey in New York, and Marcia.

IB: We’re quite good in Britain about seeing past physical differences. The French are tougher.

WF: But they have a different gene pool, frankly, I hate to say it.

IB: Taller and thinner.

WF: Yeah. Like the Russians. The Russians are lanky and wiry and kind of knarly. The French have luxurious bodies - you don’t see a whole lot of chunky people walking around the street. French aesthetics, again - what we are looking at now - was founded in the late 17th century.

IB: You obviously think the Parisians are fabulous in your stuff.

WF: You know what? I’m not going to go so far as to say that. I’m very critical of the school right now. It’s changed very much since we were up there. Claude Bessy is a wonderful person, and I want to be careful not to belittle the very serious work she’s doing, but I feel that the art is being schooled out of them, and the technique is being so unbelievable driven into them that they’re all Goddesses - there’s not a non-goddess among them. Even technically they’re all phenomenal, but it’s very difficult to find an individual. I want to weep when I think that Isabelle Guerin is retiring, because she is a renegade, she’s a rebel, and she deserves a place in the pantheon of French dancers. And the fact that she’s retiring leaves them with a tremendous artistic hole.

IB: She should do for them what Altynai Asylmuratova is doing at the Kirov, bring the sensibility back.

WF: Yeah. If I were them, I would hired her as chief balletmistress, coach and law-maker.

IB: The Parisians did this whole evening of your work, which was great.

WF: You enjoyed it?

IB: I hugely enjoyed it, and I was surprised - having seen so often mixed bills - that seeing one choreographer’s work so varied and differently paced, and the dancers showed themselves in so many different ways.

WF: They were extraordinary. I mean, I want to say, this is a very serious company.

IB: You’ve got people like Le Riche and Legris, and Guérin. People with very big brains.

WF: You have fucking great dancers. Yeah, Le Riche is a very big brain - this is no dope.

IB: Very badly injured again.

WF: Yeah, I know. Tragic. I must call him. And this is one of the most enjoyable, delighted, inspired persons I’ve ever worked with. We’ll think of something - this man is too smart to get down.

Um. The Royal Ballet. Um. I don't like their hands, the RAD hands and arms. The art is the hand

IB: Do you think the Royal Ballet are any good at your stuff?

WF: Um. The Royal Ballet... (a comic bit of considering goes on). There are some people I really love. I really love Deborah Bull. I thought she was incredibly intelligent, and had the facility to accomplish much more than they thought. Um. I don’t like their hands, the RAD hands and arms, and I tried to choose dancers who were not locked into this (he forms solid mittens with his hands). The whole art - this is my personal opinion, if I’m allowed to have a professional opinion - the art is the hand as the guidance system of everything. I was teaching at the Kirov last week, and I was saying, If you cannot control every single millimetre of these joints (points to knuckles), you cannot dance. Because this is finally going to indicate the angle of the head, the angle of the torso and the angle of the foot. And I said to them, If this is not defined ad infinitum you can just give up, because that’s where the expression will come from. (He is demonstrating all the while). It’s a balance thing - the muscle chain alters according to how you use the middle finger of the hand, say, will affect the rotation of the upper arm, which forms a huge chain of muscular reaction - which affects your technique, and finally alters the effect of your dance.

IB: It’s a bit like a bird, adjusting to all the air currents with every bit of feather.

WF: Just so. (he demonstrated the chest up, chest flat alternatives of standing in first position - as he did with Kirov)

IB: That was what Gelsey did, the ‘opening of the heart’.

WF: I was her generation. It was a spirit then. That’s the way people danced then. Balanchine was physically excessive - spatially excessive. You were into space. It wasn’t contracting space into yourself, like the RAD. With Balanchine it was a dynamic relationship with space - not a pirouette but an evolving form, and what happens to the pirouette as you do it. Again at the Kirov I was going, For godsake don’t be like a turning table.

IB: It’s feeling the air on the skin, the skin between the fingers, the skin as a sensitive organ.

WF: How much have you danced? (he asks approvingly). How much have you danced?

IB: I’ve played the piano.

WF: That’s interesting - because this is exactly what we talked about. The skin on the back. Kinesiologically, skin is perhaps one of the most important organs in your proprioception. Without creating tensions in your skin, you cannot really sense the nature of your motion.

IB: You’re conscious in playing the piano of using the air to calculate the weight of your touch.

WF: What does that remind me of? Japanese calligraphy, because you are writing in the air as you lift the brush. It’s cool.

IB: I’m very interested in how your work will survive. Are you very particular about your demands, and want these anti-habits, so what happens in 50 years from now?

WF: It’s in my will. It won’t be performed. Because dance is a living art.

IB: All your work is going to die?

WF: Yeah, yeah, It’s going to die. OK, let’s do Pina Bausch without Pina?

IB: But you could say, let’s not have Giselle or Jewels?

WF: It would be fine - the world would just move on. There would be plenty of choreographers.

IB: I knew you would say that. I resist that. As a pianist I want to have Bach and Mozart to play, and so do you.

WF: Yeah, but if you’re going to be having the 10th generation of people explaining Jewels, you are not going to have a real thing there. How would you explain? I know this for a fact - he changed it from performance to performance, for each person. ‘You kick leg like that, and no, you go that way.’ (He imitates Balanchine’s Russian accent).

IB: But then dance has no back catalogue. People have nothing to learn from.

WF: It also reinvents itself. Ballet also came out of nothing at some point.

IB: Yeah, but you couldn’t have done yours without Balanchine, and he couldn’t have done his without Petipa.

WF: Yeah, but I was there with him.

IB: Almost nobody’s alive now who worked with Fokine.

WF: I worked with Massine.

IB: All right, then Petipa? Coralli? St-Léon? Do you think these works should not be performed, because their descendants are no longer here?

WF: No, I think the nature of the work’s changed. I think they were working with something new and fresh, a code had recently been formed, and they were still inventing where they were - we’re the Italians, we’re the French, we’re the Danish, and so one. And so I think there was almost a national cultural competition who could produce the most interesting ballet - because it was still almost a diplomatic event. The Danish Ballet. The French Ballet. But today the ballet does not have the same status, and it’s also not in the same relationship to its origins 320 years later. Even 150 years ago they were half the distance from their origins, and things were a lot fresher, and perhaps things were not so reduced. Now there are just a few big schools and a few big competitions and a few ballets in classical repertoire, etc - I think it would be okay if the works did not survive, because then people would reinvent ballet, if they really needed to. Someone new would come along and figure it out for themselves.

IB: You can say that, you’re the choreographer, but I’m the person in the audience, and I want to see these things.

WF: No, but you don’t want to see it if it’s uninformed. Because it’s all a series of ideas about ballet, it’s not ballet. It’s ways of thinking about ballet - and it’s very difficult to transmit those ideas on.

IB: Yes, but we don’t know how Bach was played originally and we still do,..

WF: Exactly!

IB: We still value it, we still want it there... And you chop it all up for your pieces.

WF: Yeah, but Balanchine said himself, Today’s dancers, not tomorrow’s. Actually, he was basically saying, this will be fine now but it won’t be tomorrow, because dance is that way. And I really have to agree. Even look at something that 10 years ago was groundbreaking then and now really is not.... Something like Artifact is still unique in the genre of evening-length classical pointe ballets, yes, it is unique in that sense - and I think while I’m alive I will keep changing it, keep pushing together a paradigmatic performance of ballet-dancing. I’ll push for it, I’ll fight for it.

IB: You are now a box-office commodity in ballet.

WF: I don’t do much outside. It took 10 years to get back to the Paris Opera because I’m working in Frankfurt with my dancers on things that maybe aren’t so balletic. My wife is much more tough than I am. I say, oh they don’t get the chance to do this, they need it. She says, They’ve made a decision to be in those institutions and accept what those institutions provide. It’s not your responsibility. Your responsibility is to the people who’ve chosen to work with you. And I say, perhaps you’re right. She says, of course, if they want to do your work, they must come here.

IB: You are the same age as Baryshnikov - how can both of you at 52, 53, look so like boys?

WF: Oh, we don’t look like boys. We just look like men our age who do this profession. Look, I have to go in there every day - we don’t go and sit at the desk in the office and tap away at the computer. We get up and move around. You do this every day for 33 years. And you’re all maniacs anyway. I’m a very lucky man, that’s one thing I’d really like to say, I’m a very very lucky man. Yeah!


You have to not mind music being amplified to earsplitting levels, or the stage curtain thumping down in the middle of the action

IB REVIEW: Artifact, Ballett Frankfurt, Sadler’s Wells (Daily Telegraph Nov 4 2001)

You could smell the fear in the theatre foyer from Rosebery Avenue. High-strung voices chattered brittly about William Forsythe the “iconoclast of ballet”, others excused their ignorance of modern dance. Determined intellectuals silently buried their heads in the unhelpful programme notes: “Artifact - a ballet in 4 parts, choreography, stage, lighting and costumes William Forsythe”. Apart from composer credits and date, 1984, that is all you have to arm yourself as you enter Forsythe’s famously tortuous theatrical mind.
This is a two-hour ballet with three principal characters (two speaking parts, one mime) and a corps de ballet. It sounds conventional enough, and indeed Forsythe intends to reinterpret ballet’s earliest historical form, when it was formalised by Queen Catherine de Medici in 16th-century France.

Chief focus is a flirtatious, garrulous, imperious historical queen figure (Prue Lang), who sets the ballet going with a clap of her hands, but rapidly finds her control of events crumbling before her. Having invited us into her world (at repetitious length), and summoned the dancers for a firecracking display of Forsythean ballet pyrotechnics, she finds herself unaccountably eclipsed by the dancing plebs, and in the third act falls into royally funny screaming-fits. Finally she accepts her equality to the other dancers, just one performer in a different costume.

On this framework Forsythe hangs associations of social revolutions, theatre’s fantasy structure, memory’s unreliability, as well as the intriguing democracy of the dance studio. There are confusing factors everywhere, though: a old man in modern clothes with a megaphone, and a ghostly dancer powdered as white as the moon. You have to not mind music being amplified to earsplitting levels, or the stage curtain thumping down in the middle of the action, or house lights going on unexpectedly.

Mere modern mannerisms? The lights business, yes, I think so, and Eva Crossman-Hecht’s piano music in Parts I and IV is vicious on the ears. But the curtain’s interventions feel rather magical, like the eyelid shutting on a memory. Also, Nathan Milstein’s febrile recording of Bach’s Chaconne in D when heard so loudly conjures up an almost physical sensation of horsehair grating on gut string - the friction that not only produces the abstract glory of the music but the dynamic presence of the human being working away to make it happen. And that is exactly the sensation that drives the awesome company dance that accompanies it in Part II.
This is ballet drawn in hard, sharp, fast, black strokes, as formally organised as a 19th-century corps de ballet and yet tipped with menacing extremeness. Dana Caspersen, a mercurial little blonde, struck the central pas de deux with lightning, but overall the choreography is too calculated to be genuinely revealing.

Artifact makes a novel counterpoint to Don Quixote, a representative of the mannered, bloodless ritual to which the court ballet had slipped by the mid 19th-century and which you can currently see at the Royal Ballet. Forsythe’s ballet has more meat, more stimulating dance, no more plot confusion, no worse music, and much better jokes.

IB REVIEW: Eidos: Telos, Ballett Frankfurt, Sadler’s Wells, Daily Telegraph Nov 9 2001

Eidos: Telos means “The image is the end” - or: visualise what you want to do before you do it. When one thinks of the ambition of the vision that William Forsythe must have had when he dreamt up this three-act multi-media experience of dance, visual staging and sound, when he began threading through his themes of the death of a loved one, and the classical opposition of Apollonian order and Dionysian disorder, it is almost impossible that he ended up with a work so brilliantly achieved, both fantastical and focused.
It delves even more boldly and successfully than last week’s Artifact into the hinterland where the logical, daytime brain meets the irrational, night-time imagination, and dramatically interprets three powerful Greek myths about death, those of Persephone, forced to spend half of every year in hell, of Arachne, whose skill at weaving led to her suicide and reincarnation as a spider, and - above all - of Orpheus and Eurydice.

The death here is that of Forsythe’s second wife, a dancer who died aged 32 of cancer in 1994. Eidos: Telos, created over the following year, feels like a monumental lament, an attempt to enter the underworld and experience his wife’s fears and agonies by theatrical means. Part 1 prepares for this journey, its six dancers as nervous as grasshoppers, skidding and skittering in their socks at the mercy of ticking clocks and a barrage of trombonists. A violinist attempts, like Orpheus with his lyre, to keep the brass monsters at bay. Two enormous wires stretch across the back, discreet, to begin with.

In Part 2 we enter a nightmare of dying, of spiders, unspeakable frights, with a girl at the centre, bare-breasted, blonde hair tumbling - Persephone facing her lonely hell in an extraordinary monologue, an unruly torrent of words, half nonsense, half fantasy, as she struggles to remember the beauty of stars and banish ghastly fears. Supernatural light changes flash through the darkness, and the vast wires now bear what seem to be spidery, pink cadavers. Dana Caspersen’s gifts know no end - having proved an astounding dancer in Artifact, here she is scarily convincing in this speaking part, and even sings quite well too.

Parsing the literal meaning of it becomes a hopeless task, and before long I abandoned all reason and decided it was best to open more instinctive receptors to this peculiar, spellbinding evening. Why the corps of dancers turned into a comedy act in Part 2, why a bizarre sort of team game emerged in Part 3, I cannot say, but it felt right. Those mighty wires were eventually moved to cut the stage in two, which the dancers treated first with awed fear and then with cheeky familiarity, strumming them into deep, subterranean sounds, as if playing with the threads of Fate itself. The cacophony, the blasting trombones, the thrumming, doomy wires, rose for the terrible, brief conclusion, Caspersen’s little naked body in death throes.

All right, it doesn’t sound fun, but somehow I came out walking on air, pumped up with exhilaration, not misery. Its logic is as clear as mud, but then it’s not rocket-science, it’s theatre - and as theatre goes, this is a pulverising, magnificent, thrilling evening.


I object to wobbling as the result of the imposition of will on the dancer that is not their own

In 2003 we met again, in the Covent Garden Hotel coffee bar, when he performed with his friend, the English choreographer Jonathan Burrows. Changes were imminent: Ballett Frankfurt was about to be closed down by the conservative civic authorities of Frankfurt, who said they now wanted more Swan Lakes and less of the radical stuff.

IB: You’ve admired Jonathan Burrows quite a while?

WF: He did a piece for us in 1997, it was a version of Stop Quartet. I think Stop Quartet is a masterpiece, a geat great work. i was deeply moved and changed by it. The way it's constructed, the organisation of motion. Jonathan works on complex physical organisation - the movements themselves are very simple, but the state of organisation required a breathing and an almost mantra- like state. he said it was a bit like a chant. That the steps became almost an ontological process - you don't dance Stop Quartet, you are Stop Quartet. And that for me was deeply influencing, and I slowly began - not specifically - but I found myself moving in that direction years later.

IB: Did you discuss with him how he arrived at it - or was it instinct? Perhaps related to his ballet background?

WF: A really great choreographer like JB is an instinctive choreographer. I think you have to distinguish between dance and choreography - two separate disciplines. Dancing happens without choreography all the time. Think of discos! Or you're in the kitchen, turn on the music and dance around. For example you can't divorce the properties of water from waves. You can't divorce the properties of dancers from the dance. And it's when the choreography is indivisible from the dance that you have something. In my opinion choreography is often treated as a secondary practice, something that lies on top of the abilities of the dancers, rather than being the result of a way of being a dancer.

IB: Last time we met we talked about the need for dancers to absorb something from someone else (the choreographer) and then repossess it for themselves.

WF: It was almost a political thing, trying to figure out how we could arrive at autonomy within this contract - my old mantra was that choreography channels the desire to dance, so that I provide let's say a topology where the dancer can realise those things. Obviously it's no longer a situation where you dictate everything.

IB: This is the revolution in dance in the last third of the 20th century - removing diktat from choreographers, handing the choreographer to the dancers.

WF: I’ve basically tried to teach people choreographic skills as I understand them. Rather than teach a choreography, I try to teach people how to choreograph this work. So it’s "I think it looks like this, but what do you think?"

IB: Is it possible to teach children this?

WF: Absolutely. I'm doing this in Brazil. I've been working with kids in the favelas in Rio, and I'm experimenting a lot. Cognitive neuro-scientists - exercises used to help children with learning disabilities and trying to apply them to dance. We’re working with kids between 14 and 22.

IB: You had to simplify for children?

WF: No, exactly the same stuff as for adult professionals, but I give it to them at a different rate. I've had phenomenal results. Children choreographing amazing things within three days. it's unbelievable.

IB: What's the difference between natural creativity and 'choreography’?

WF: Because they could understand the intricacies of shape, scheme, strategy, and could define parameters of motion - it wasn't just any old motion. Those kids were all first and foremost hiphop dancers, by nature. And I taught them all how to do double tours to second without calling it so, treating it as an event. I think the spatial awareness, the ability to be rigorous about space is one of the most extraordinary things about ballet, that's why it's the greatest training, even though I don't think ballet companies are good places to work, the majority - I think they actually crush the idea. This spatial precision is what I try to have people understand as quickly as possible. i use a lot of things like sounds and skin, touching skin, so that the brain gets the message. .. to make the body aware of itself. Proprioception. These are all proprioceptive exercises.

IB: Lynn Seymour told me the most valuable thing she learned was Dalcroze Eurhythmics, which taught her contact with the space of the stage.

WF: Epaulement I discovered is a universal human coordination, which is specifically applied to ballet, but it can be applied to any motion of the body. The feeling of épaulement, which is a sensation in the neck basically, can be applied to anything - it introduced relationships between say the shoulders and the hips or the knees, so that people are articulating much more, or at least are much more aware of their articulation.

IB: This all goes to prove that those who think of you as the butcher of ballet are potty. Including the burgers of Frankfurt.

WF: Oh, that was just political desperation. Politicians will say anything and everything. They don't care about anything other than the club and making points. And of course it all backfired, because all hell broke loose and 16,000 emails came in; and the Mayor now wherever she goes is confronted with questions about how she let this happen, so it's very unpleasant for her (he drawls with a hint of satisfaction). But Ballett Frankfurt is finished. I don't want to work for that theatre.

IB: So have you decided your future?

WF: Projects that at the moment are more education-based. I'm trying to figure out how performance could be a form of physical education, or kinetic education. If I have to compensate for the architecture of theatre, what would this look like?

IB: It's apocalyptic for a man of the theatre to say, let's contemplate life and performance without theatre.

WF: Yes. it's certainly invigorating... Like playing golf in the woods, rather than on the course! (Or real tennis, I say.) You see! It's a much more interesting game than tennis. I think tennis should be sponsored by NASA now - it's just a ballistic thing.

IB: Some people would say your work should be sponsored by NASA. It's faster, higher, more powered etc

WF: Ballet has lost some of its architecture, how should I say - like tennis. I went to New York to take ballet classes as a student. An old balletmaster there said, 'Technique is speed. You have no technique unless you can dance fast.' And I think dancers are often in a way intoxicated with perception.

IB: Technique is slowness... I mean, superspeed can only be obtained if superslow is understood.

WF: I would say that very fast motion obviously has degrees of precision - some are fast but not precise; so you are asking about fast/precise, fast/imprecise, slow/precise, slow/imprecise.

IB: You have that interesting title - The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude - exactitude is dear to you.

WF: It's from Foucault. Yes, it is. It's at the heart of ballet - ballet is a lot like, say, zen archery - you have to move beyond the goal to reach the goal. The goal has to be perfectly visualised.

IB: No wobbling...

WF: Wobbling has to do with a philosophical moment: 'the categoric imperative', which means unquestioned duty. There's no reason to wobble. Wobble is a state of obligation, rather than a state of dance. That's why I object to wobbling as the result of the imposition of will on the dancer that is not their own. Wobbling is the result of imposed will. It has to do with the context of that dancer.

IB: I thought maybe it's just that a dancer can’t do it; then when others do it, it looks like willpower.

WF: No. Some dancers have neurological coordination that makes balancing easer for them. Usually you'll find people cast to suit particular physical talents: like good balancers get Aurora, a little bit of Darwinian selection goes on. I do feel that wobbling is a process of less essential things - if you are consumed in the act of this balance, you don't wobble. But there are so many other priorities imposed upon the dancer - rather than saying, ‘Can we teach ballet-dancing as a spiritual practice, and not as a form of military drill?’

IB: I imagine this year has emotionally been quite disorientating.

WF: Well, as a practising Buddhist, actually it's been extremely instructive, and I feel very grateful. The Buddhists say, ‘be grateful for everything and to everyone’. I really am grateful, because it's enabled me to establish priorities and rethink the next years, instead of just continuing.

IB: When did you become Buddhist?

WF: After my wife died. I was a Christian Scientist as a child. And then sort of nothing. I’m not that strict. What I like is its immensely healthy mental attitude.

IB: So you wasted no energy in being angry or miserable.

WF: No. I never was angry. Listen to this, I've been working in Brazil teaching children who live in favelas. These are people who don't have anything, and I realised that if I ever ever complain ever again somebody should just slap me. know what I mean? These are kids hiding under cars during gunfights before class. One kid's family I know hasn't even got a table. They only have one T-shirt and shorts. So what do I have to complain about? I have way too much. I have opportunity, to do what I want to do, I have food on the table and a nice bed to sleep in. So I'm worried about the bad job and no cleaner? Am I mad?


Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters