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|About the Change|
Director, Ballet Frankfurt
One of the most influential ballet choreographers and directors of the late 20th century interviewed on BBC
2 February 2003
Transcribed by Ballet.co
His detractors, and there are some, accuse him of modish, politically correct postmodernism, expressed in glossy pumped up athleticism. A few, from the very high classical tradition, say that deconstructing the great tradition can only be the work of Antichrist. In that case, if the devil has the best tunes, he also seems to have the best dance steps. Last year there was public outcry when the Frankfurt City Council announced they could no longer support Ballett Frankfurt at existing levels. So in 2004, after a historic tenure in Frankfurt, creatively comparable with that of his idol, George Balanchine of the New York City Ballet, Forsythe will move on. For the moment, though, he is extremely active backstage here at one of his main performance venues in Frankfurt. As a young man of just 53, Forsythe will not be short of offers. So let’s deal with Balanchine first. You were taught, not by him, but by one of his dancers. What is the nature of Balanchine’s appeal to you?
Well, you know, I like the mechanics of dancing. I like how it feels and I like how you think about it. I was taught by someone who danced in his first company in America, and someone he also trusted as a teacher of his style. What it was, at least as I remember and experienced it, was a kind of euphoria, yea, that comes through identification with a kind of universal mathematic, which is what ballet is. It is an extraordinary testament to how we intuit, let’s say, the universal laws of physics that are everywhere – there is no space without it.
Expressed through the joints of the human body?
Yea. We are designed, because the world is such. We didn’t develop as a species without physics. We grew into this world with physics acting on our bodies the whole time. So the Balanchine, let’s say, style, technique, whatever you call it, was taught to me as a very complex series of torsions based on something called épaulment, which is the relationship between the head, the hand and the foot and the very prescribed counter turnings and counter-twistings. So what happens if you engage in this, and reduce your focus to one action, if you prioritise your consciousness towards creating these forms that are inherent in ballet, you actually arrive at a kind of euphoric state and I was taught this as a kind of euphoric meditation.
I think you also said that you admired and loved his tremendous mechanical simplicity. Is that consistent with what you just said about the euphoric state that it induced?
Well, there are two different things. There’s the style of dancing from Balanchine and there is his choreography. At one point you have to try and separate the two because he does have a school. The school teaches the style of very rigorous épaulment. The choreography itself was dependent upon this school, the dancers all had access to this technical ability and the choreography is spectacularly musical. That is the whole point of the choreography and it is there for music as an interpretation. Whether this is the only way to make ballets now, interpreting music, certainly begs questioning.
But there was no doubt that he was the key influence that you had. When did you first begin to understand that you wanted to move beyond Balanchine?
Mmmm. I think I wanted first to move through Balanchine.
What were the personal reasons, which drove you through Balanchine to beyond Balanchine?
I grew up in a different culture. I grew up in American culture of the fifties and sixties and my musical influences were drastically different. He did not grow up with rock and roll and I did. Right around that time was the emergence of rock and roll and I lived it. Quite unconsciously I became a really really good dancer, a regular all-dancer, someone who turned on the radio and danced around the kitchen. I danced at parties. I won my first friends in school, because I could dance well.
But you knew that dancing alone, good as you were, wasn’t going to satisfy you, even though you felt euphoric?
Dancing teaches you a lot.
How do you get into the state of mind that you pick up what the body is saying to you and start to learn from your body?
Practice. Practice. Every considerable kind of physical practice you can imagine. I did ballet for many years. I danced since I was three.
Why did you start dancing?
You don’t start dancing.
If the rest of us did that it would be a neurotic twitch, but the way you do it is something different?
Because I’m conscious of what I am doing. I’m looking at what the body’s possibilities are. I am looking at my hand right now. I’m saying – ok how does the body configure itself? What are the mathematics here? What are the tensions? You say - what are the properties of the present when you are with your body? What am I paying attention to right now?
Can you ever be still?
That’s a good question. Difficult. Usually when I’m sleeping. It keeps you thin apparently!
You said of course that you were brought up in this very different American cultural scene from Balanchine. Given what we all think about the vitality and creativity of American dance, why didn’t you stay there?
Well what do you really mean by ‘stay there’?
Well you came to Germany.
If you have to be there in order to be yourself, beware is really the question. So I pretty much took myself with me when I moved across the ocean. I don’t think that I myself have been tremendously influenced by a foreign culture. Except that the theatre culture here is organised differently to America, so I adapted myself to the organisation. But I myself as a person would not, I think, have been that much different, had I lived in America.
You think you are recognisably creatively the same person as you would have been had you stayed in New York? It sounds unlikely?
Well the question is – would it have turned out differently? Sure, why not, because it’s a different system and one is certainly adaptive. I feel I would have probably adapted to the situation there and there is no use saying ‘what if’ and ‘had you’, rather I am here and this is what has emerged.
Let me clear up one thing. You talk most of the time about ‘ballet’ and making ‘ballets’, universally people
Ballet has never been retro. It is in my body and I live with it. It is very contemporary and you can’t sort of erase it, I guess. If you learn a language, for example, if you learn English as your mother tongue, it’s very difficult to erase something like that. Ballet was my mother tongue in dance, so you can’t erase it from your consciousness.
You never felt you had to signal you were doing something contemporary and avant-garde by saying ‘let’s push ballet to one side and let’s call it dance’?
Well, I mean, this is ballet now. It is one way of thinking about it, certainly not all of ballet, just a little part of it. Ballet is a normative methodology in its purest form. It’s a normative methodology. We all learn this normative methodology. Everyone agrees that passé is passé, that an arabesque is an arabesque, and we all try to with our own means, our bodies, try to say ‘this is my arabesque’ and we have this wonderful ideal that exists, it’s a prescription, but there is no arabesque for example: there is only everyone’s arabesque. You carry it around with you, and if you are going through changes as a person in this civilisation that we’re in, then, I guess, it changes according to what influences or effects you have experienced.
Now let’s get on to this question of deconstruction which, is rightly or wrongly, attached to you or hung around your neck. First of all do you mind the fact that it is the first thing that anybody says: “Forsythe has deconstructed classical ballet?”
That’s the essence of what we are talking about?
To some degree. I think there is an error on the part of many people who use the word ‘deconstruction’ that they phonetically confuse it with destruction. They hear the negative and they think and use it that way. I would rather they say something more direct about what they feel about what I’m doing with ballet. But I don’t understand why people see themselves, who don’t practice dance, as the guardians of a tradition. What tradition? Which part? There are many lines to this tradition. There are many ways of practicing it. This fourth arabesque is not the other fourth arabesque in a different school. In any case I am only interested in a kind of internal refractive aspect of it and the analysis of categorical representation. But this is me and I am just one of many people practicing ballet. So to call it deconstruction is a little bit cavalier.
Even your supporters say it among the dance critics, one of them just said very simply: ‘Forsythe has broken every rule in the classical dance book.’ Do you accept that?
I would like to know first what they
You mean ‘deconstructing’?
Yes. I would rather let’s change that word to prescription. So if the arabesque involves a line emanating from the hip, at least 45 degrees from the floor, defined by the foot in its relationship to the hip, and going up there to 180 degrees at least for a penchée, then within that mathematical prescription, there is perhaps room for saying ‘what if.’
But you are still working within the mathematical prescription of the arabesque, as anyone will recognise it?
Ballet is a geometric inscriptive art form. We’re inscribing geometry. Let’s just start there. It’s a really basic approach to it, very simple and not overtly political, but it does have philosophical backgrounds. I mean, if you look at the 18th century and the emphasis on neo-Platonism as a foundation for abstraction, then OK - this is tricky stuff: why do we believe this is a valuable good etc etc. So one begins to examine it and say ‘what if one does this to that, do the results change, do they change philosophically and then perhaps the politics of making it do change?
The prescription, I suppose, also comes in the idea that people say that ‘this is what the arabesque is and you shall not change from that.’ That’s the negative or restrictive prescription, isn’t it?
People think of prescription as a sort of linguistic form that has no space in it. A bit like this pen: I can’t do anything with this pen on the table here - it is solid and it is fixed. But it’s language, a linguistic prescription. Language is malleable and suggests change already. Because I like to think algorithmically, I like to think of these prescriptions as little language machines that produce these things called arabesques and tendus and pirouettes, one says ‘ why not look at it as a research project and ask ‘what happens if the prescription is altered by one word, two words, and we replace this with that, what emerges? Basically it is curiosity.
Let me just try another quote from the writer I mentioned, who said “the classical line has been replaced by an aesthetic of ‘perfect disorder’ where every joint is shot through with energy and drama, traditionally modest movements have been terrifyingly magnified so that an arabesque might seem to wrench the dancers’ joints apart”. Is that a fair description of some of the things you have done?
I think that writer enjoys hyperbole. And revels in it.
You think you are not doing anything as extreme as that?
Our goals are so much different. Our goals are really very workmanlike. We are looking at these things and saying ‘ is it possible with this velocity to accomplish that’ and rather than say we are working teleologically and want an absolute outcome – this is not classical physics, this is more like quantum physics – there is a probability that you will fall over, and there is a possibility that this thing will transform into something else – and we’re just basically pushing the system to say ‘OK at a certain level, what are the probabilities, will this thing become something we don’t know. Can ballet, something we know, actually produce something we don’t know? That’s an interesting thing.
How far down that line do you think you have got?
I’m getting there (laughter). I’m getting on down the line.
At the same time you are always I think drawing on ballet’s academic heritage and that seems to be something of a very strong sense inside you. Am I right?
Academic, yes. It is most recognisable in its academic form. I would say one always starts from that point in so far that the definition is pretty clear. It’s accepted universally. I think that having investigated that to a large degree, we have sort of moved on a little bit at the moment and seeing the body as geometrically inscriptive but looking at other properties like folding, collapsing, other kinds of effects from physics.
Now were you at the time that you were going down this road actively dissatisfied with what sort of choreography was on offer?
Throughout my entire career I have seen wonderful wonderful works from really great artists and I have always been inspired by other people.
You never had to say ‘I reject all that and this is me and my unique road’?
I wasn’t paying attention to mainstream ballet.
Are you surprised when people say; this is a language, a ballet language, for the 21st century?
It seems almost appropriate.
But you didn’t set out to do it?
No! We’re just ballet practitioners.
You came to Ballett Frankfurt in 1984. You were just 35, perhaps the right age to start running a company. How clear an idea did you have about what you wanted to do with the company?
I had less ideas about the company and more ideas about the space. The Frankfurt Opera stage is perhaps one of the most beautiful theatres in the world. It’s 50x50 metres. The audience is relatively small. You can see well practically from every seat and one has the feeling on the stage that one is rather in a landscape, it’s so large. This influenced very much my thinking about space and making things in space.
What sort of opportunities did that suggest to you? That you had the space you needed to work with, rather than dropping conventional sets in?
Well things took time - in other words, to walk 50 metres takes more time that it does to walk 12. So the temporal structures of pieces adapted themselves to that kind of space. Because the space itself is so beautiful, I didn’t want to fill it with anything but light. So I left the majority of scenic elements out and tried to build a repertoire, of building lighting instruments myself, designing myself, building them and deploying them to create unique visual situations for this stage.
Did you know at the beginning that your company would have no soloists, no corps de ballet, just a company of equals?
That’s interesting. I don’t know if I knew it.
Who was going to get the solos?
Not just that. It makes no sense. If you are going to work on ballet, there is no male ballet or female ballet basically. Men at one point don’t wear pointe shoes, but the primary stuff of ballet is ungendered. There are degrees of expertise: someone can do a double saut de basque, another can only do one. Someone can do triple tours. Someone can do entrechat huit, but someone else can also do an extraordinary entrechat six. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. Everyone can’t do everything extraordinarily well. But what made sense would be to have a group whose talents were relatively equal. So I have only soloists. I don’t have a group and this brings a much different atmosphere into the work. Everyone is equally responsible.
Did you know that you would have to find over a period of time a different set of dancers, who could work in the sort of way that you wanted?
Yes – but that’s a slow evolution.
How long did that take?
That took about eight years.
And in that time you were evolving your method, your approach?
And you worked through it with them?
Yes. I did. I also worked on their bodies. I always made the work for who I had in front of me. You don’t make a work for some non-existent person. You have to look at the person in front of you and see what they are doing. And I also change ballets constantly. If the cast changes, and something does not look good on that person, I change it. If they are having trouble co-ordinatively with it, I change it. There is no point in making people suffer – for what?
Now your relationship with the company, of course, has evolved. From the early eighties, the credits for your ballets say ‘choreography by William Forsythe, created on X and Y and Z’
‘Created on’ that I saw.
Where was that?
In the list of your works. Then of course it changes. But what is that telling us about your relationship with your dancers? To me it suggests very much a sort of physical approach of working with their bodies?
Well – I am 53 now and
It becomes active/passive?
Yes – exactly. It evolves to the point that the dancers are credited for choreography and they are also paid for it.
But that took time. That’s the interesting thing. We move from ‘created on’ to ‘William Forsythe in collaboration with the ensemble’, which, presumably, was a very different process and then in 1997, ‘Hypothetical Stream’, ‘a choreographic work from William Forsythe’ and then nine named dancers.
Hypothetical Stream was originally made for Daniel Larrieu and his company in Tours. He wanted a ballet and I said ‘I can’t come – I‘ll fax it to you’. So I took a series of sketches from Tiepolo and I drew any number of vectors emanating from these knots of suspended figures, all flying in the clouds, all very knotted, very baroque, and I drew a number of vectors and said ‘these are knots’ and these need to be solved or unknotted. The lines that I drew were hypothetical solutions.
How the dancers would move to unknot the knots?
Yea – or tie the knot or make it more complicated and the figures in the drawings are all numbered. Your number would be shown, Joan as Number 1 and John as Number 2 etc., and they received instructions on how to construct this ballet and I have done it in three different places, and each one is drastically different and people solved it themselves
Have you ever faxed any other ballet like that?
That was the only faxed ballet (laughter).
But how can nine or six people, you and the company, all choreograph together? In the end, you are making the choice. Somebody has to be the directing mind. I think you said that the trouble is, if there isn’t a directing mind, it looks like a can of worms?
I start the idea. I am the initiator. I believe that something could emerge from these conditions. I name the conditions, basically the algorithm to make the choreography, we then work on these instructions, and these instructions then give a kind of result, and we discuss that and from that I have to keep deriving other conditions, variations on these results, until we arrive at something that is agreed upon. The reason the dancers do it is because of time limitations to some degree. Also it is that in order to understand the structure, you have to be in the structure sometimes, dancing it. I have had up to eight dancers examine a structure, according to certain instructions internally. That was Eidos Telos, and you get a very very unique result. A work based on Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, there was a wonderful introduction to the book at one point and it said ‘Mrs Dalloway was having moments of vision’. So one of our methodologies had to do with identically remembering another person’s variation, or phrase rather, and building a kind of architecture of movement around it. But you had to keep seeing this other person dancing in order to perform it, so it was a way of having vision.
Frankfurt Ballet in 'Eidos:Telos'
photograph courtesy of Sadler's Wells and Ballett Frankfurt
Repetition. Repetition - over and over and over again until one could move through space and the shape of the hand in this case (that was Eidos Telos), the shape of the hand recalls sequences. So if the hand moves in relationship to the head in a certain tension, you know that recalls a certain sequence. And this has to do with a cloud of memory, the eidolon, a cloud of form and it had to do with creating a memory, a kind of metaphoric memory. It was immediately after my wife had died – so I was really concerned with memory at that point.
Yes – because you have said the body is the memory and I guess that is something only that a dancer can understand?
Well the body begins to remember
Now music. In your early years and that was more in your ‘going through Balanchine’ phase; a lot of the music was 20th century classical. Then at a particular period the Dutch composer Thom Willems started to work with you more or less all the time. His music is often very hard, very percussive, and very industrial – call it what you want. What is the appeal of that sort of music for you as a choreographer?
I’d like to take Thom under my wing right now. You really have to hear twenty years of music before you can say what
At what point does he come into the creative process?
He can come in at any stage. He can walk in two days before the premiere or he can hand me a piece four months before. It varies every time. We’ve had every conceivable sort of time schedule in the working over the last 20 years. Thom Willems though is also somebody who is constantly evolving. Sometimes the music is played live on a laptop during a performance; sometimes he pulls back to the point where it is almost inaudible. I would say he is an extraordinary partner. He is always interested in the idea. He always wants to know what are we thinking and I say ‘nothing – we’re just organising bodies’. That’s fine with him, but he is always interested in the idea.
Now how precise is the idea when you start working on a new piece, when you walk into the rehearsal studio? You said just now that you choreographed a dance by images from Tiepolo, which you then drew out on paper. Do you ever do anything remotely like that with your own work that you have sketched it out in sketches?
So what do you say to the dancers on Day One? What sort of thing do you say to them?
I usually say I’ve absolutely no idea what I’m doing because I’ve never made this ballet before.
And they say ‘give us a clue’
Right - and then we go.
Through a process. A process of discovery between you and the ensemble is an absolutely critical part of the creative business?
I think our curiosity is very valuable: how curious are people and how trusting. I have to trust them. They have to trust me.
Have they ever said ‘Bill we’ve done this before?’
(Laughs) Yes they have – that is actually I find a very valuable comment! I say ‘OK, do we want to do it again?’ I find it a very helpful comment and I say ‘Oh really?’ and they say ‘yes’
You say – “damn I didn’t realise?”
Exactly and I’m very very grateful to them! The dancers are actually the ones who have actually pushed me constantly to go further.
What external influences matter to you? I mean you mentioned Tiepolo; you mentioned rock and roll music. Who are the other influences from the artistic world all around you that matter; that you think ‘ah - he or she has really got something going?’
I would say that I’m very influenced by the here and now: whatever is in front of me, a book, a newspaper,
Why does dance matter at all today – Dance? Ballet?
We all still have bodies, don’t we? So I would say, that’s a very very good question. Does it matter? And to what degree does it matter? I’m reading Hegel right now so I am inclined to question some of the distinctions he makes about
That will continue even if the classical ballet companies, and your company, didn’t exist?
Yes – of course it would. Thank God. I would hope so, you know.
So why do companies such as yours matter? Why does this particular kind of dance – ballet - matter?
I don’t know that it does or not. I’m not in a position to assess it. We do it. It has a certain resonance. Right now I am working on projects that make work that tries to make the audience aware of its own attention. A recent work we made called Forehand tried to function more as a musical piece creating a series of silences. And these silences were designed to make the audience aware of their collective attention. It actually worked. At the end of the piece I almost had the feeling that the audience applauds very enthusiastically its own attention, which, because I think of television to some degree, is harder and harder to get. You can’t zap your way out of a performance quite frankly.
Were people embarrassed by the silences, because it had put the spotlight back on them?
Perhaps at some point, but finally it became, let’s say, a collective enterprise. And this collective enterprise apparently was from the response of the audience very rewarding. This was people being glad that they became a little community of attentive people.
What’s the next stage of your evolution as a maker of ballets?
The question is: I really don’t know if it is ballets I am making. Perhaps we need another word for what we are doing here at the moment. I think the word ‘ballet’ causes a lot of contention. We certainly don’t want to upset those who have used ballet as a way to ‘fetishise’ their own hysteria. So I think that I would rather move on than work in the arena of the hysterical fetishists, as it were, and just say that at one point this was a place where we moved from, a point of departure. Certainly I have no intentions of trying to define ballet. Ballet is not to be defined by any individual whatsoever. It is, I guess, an historical normative methodology and this is where it will always be.
But curiosity, which you mentioned much earlier, that will always be the defining characteristic of what you do?
That’s nice if that would be true. I hope so. I hope we stay curious – certainly. I don’t think any one person can exhaust ballet, anymore than one composer can exhaust music, classical music, for that matter. Bach certainly didn’t exhaust classical music, nor did Stravinsky. But I would say that I don’t want to be in a situation where I am also defined by ballet only. Because the thinking uses ballet as a structure – a structure that accelerates thinking. Like I say, a place to start from. I don’t want to certainly say this is ballet now, perhaps it isn’t ballet now. Perhaps it isn’t anymore. I should be the last person to say what it is. I would be disinclined to say that this is the historical line of this art form. It is just one of many lines.
What about the line in Frankfurt?
Well the line in Frankfurt is about to experience, let us say, a rather strong shift in its direction. I don’t know whether the line will be able to continue in the form that it’s in, as a company, or whether we will simply have to imagine ourselves otherwise, which is to say we will probably move into more teaching actually and documenting ideas. So we have several offers right now, like the CD-ROM that we have produced already, to produce more instructive things, and to keep the ideas alive.
But you don’t just want to become an archivist of your own work?
Not an archivist but these are useful thinking tools for people working in the field and they are just tools.
When did you last see a traditional production of Swan Lake?
Swan Lake? Mmmmm
Or any of the great classical Russian Ballets?
Let me think (pause). It’s been a while.
Did you enjoy it?
Actually I think I saw Sylvie, Sylvie Guillem
You don’t in any way have to set what you do against that sort of work?
Not at all. I want to see that sort of work really beautifully performed. I don’t want to see a crap version of Swan Lake or Giselle. I look to see an extraordinary, an exquisite, a pristine version of that. Yea. My work is not against it. It’s adjacent, or beside, or around. You can’t move through the same space. That space is historically occupied by that work. You can’t pass through it. You can’t affect it or deflect it. You can’t do anything with it. It simply exists as a line and these other lines in history, you know, some will last longer and some will last less long.
Bill Forsythe thank you very much.
You’re very welcome.